Tag Archives: Sergei Romanyuk

Sergei Rachmaninoff home, Moscow

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There is no plaque here, but the proof that Sergei Rachmaninoff lived briefly in this building at 15 Plotnikov Lane (it was numbered 19 at the time, and the street was called Nikolsky Lane) can be found in the writings of the late, great Moscow historian Sergei Romanyuk. “S.V. Rachmaninoff briefly moved into the house on this plot in the fall of 1892 after his triumphant graduation from the Conservatory.” That phrase, more or less in that configuration, is repeated over and over in many sources. That’s the influence of Romanyuk – if he said it, it happened.
Rachmaninoff is in the news a lot these days mostly for the wrong reasons. The Russian government, as though it has nothing else to do, decided not long ago that it wanted to bring Rachmaninoff’s bones home. This appears to have been the idea of Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky and, frankly, it sounds like one of his cockamamie ideas. I guess it wasn’t enough for Medinsky to wage war against obscenities in art; against so-called representations and propaganda of the “gay lifestyle” in art; against theater productions that supposedly “offend the sensibilities of religious believers”; against theater festivals that his department accuses of failing to support “traditional Russian values,” and so on and so forth. No, he had to go and decide to try to get someone to dig up Sergei Rachmaninoff’s remains, where they are buried north of New York City, and “bring them home to Moscow.” Medinsky is irked that the United States has “arrogantly privatized the name of Rachmaninoff” and that he, Rachmaninoff,  is put forth as a “great American composer of Russian descent.”
Since I’m not really up to jumping into this controversy at the moment, I’ll just say this: I’m not quite sure what sources Medinsky relied on to come up with the claim that people in the United States call Rachmaninoff an “American” composer. I never recall having seen such a definition, not in a respectable publication, anyway. As for the fact that he lived the last 25 years of his life in the U.S. – it’s true.
Maybe Medinsky is unhappy with the way Rachmaninoff’s name was westernized. Technically speaking his last name should be spelled Rakhmaninov. As I said not long ago in this space, the “ch” (in place of the hard “kh” sound) and all the “ff’s” are the sign of the era in which he emigrated. French and German styles of transliteration influenced American usage heavily at the time. There were, virtually, no Slavic studies in the U.S. at this time – just a few intrepid translators (Louis and Aylmer Maude, Constance Garnett) and producers (Sol Hurok). So there was no community concerned with keeping order in the transliteration of the names of all those Russians pouring in over the borders, many of them by way of France and Germany…
And don’t get me started on immigrants… Thank God the United States is a nation of immigrants. Anybody who tells you otherwise, in any form, doesn’t know jack about the United States, about humanity, about art, about culture, about life…
But I digress too much today…

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It doesn’t look like Rachmaninoff spent much time in this building at all. He arrived in the fall of 1892 and surely was gone by the summer of 1893, which he spent with family friends in Ukraine. It’s true that he came back to Moscow at summer’s end, but it sounds like he took up residence elsewhere at that point.
This building – now a fish restaurant – appears to have witnessed at least one important career moment in Rachmaninoff’s life, even though he was only 19 when he moved in. It so happens that the last work he composed while a student at the Conservatory was the opera Aleko, based on Alexander Pushkin’s narrative poem The Gypsies. Although he disparaged the work, it turned out to be a big success. The Bolshoi Theater picked it up and mounted it on May 9, 1893 (April 27, Old Style). (I have seen other dates for this premiere – including March of 1893, but I trust the May 9 date.) Moreover, that production starred none less than the great bass Fyodor Chaliapin. Rachmaninoff probably would have received word of the Bolshoi’s decision, and would have been involved in the preparation for the premiere, while living here on Nikolsky Lane.
I can’t nail it down as a fact, but it would appear that Rachmaninoff lived here with his relatives, the Satin family. In any case, Wikipedia tells us that he “spent the summer of 1892 on the estate of Ivan Konavalov, a rich landowner in the Kostroma Oblast, and moved back with the Satins in the Arbat District.” That is precisely the time that Romanyuk has him showing up on Nikolsky (Plotnikov) Lane. Wikipedia offers a few more tidbits that appear to characterize the short time Rachmaninoff spent here: “His publisher was slow in paying, so Rachmaninoff took an engagement at the Moscow Electrical Exhibition, where he premiered his landmark Prelude in C-sharp minor (Op. 3, No. 2). This small piece, part of a set of five pieces called Morceaux de fantaisie, was received well, and is one of his most enduring pieces.”
The Satin family (pronounced Sah-TEEN) was important for Rachmaninoff: He would marry Natalya Satina, his first cousin. There is a nice little story about Sergei and Natalya on the Find a Grave website:
Sergei and Natalya met as young music students during Easter 1888. Rachmaninoff later roomed with the Satin family. Natalya wrote, ‘in September 1901 my parents finally succumbed to my pleas to be allowed to marry Sergei Vasiliyevich. All that was left was to obtain legal permission, which was not easy since we were closely related. [Marriage of first cousins was barred in the Russian Orthodox Church.] My mother took on the challenge with her one-of-a-kind energy and zeal. She thus bustled all through winter, and only in March it transpired that a petition had to be sent to the Czar. The wedding was postponed till the end of April due to the arrival of Lent. Early in April Sergei went to Ivanovka and sat down to write twelve romances, deciding to turn out one daily to earn money for our trip to Italy after the wedding.’ These are the 12 Romances for voice and piano, Opus 21.
Of their wedding day she wrote, ‘We were wed on 29 April 1902 on the outskirts of Moscow in some regimental church. I rode in the carriage in my wedding dress, with the rain pouring relentlessly. The sole entry into the church was via a long succession of barracks. The soldiers stared at us in amazement.'”

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Alexander Pushkin birthplace, Moscow

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I get a kick out of this. When I googled “birthplace of…” in Russian several options leaped out at me. The first was “birthplace of Christ.” The second was “birthplace of Aphrodite.” The third was “birthplace of Pushkin.” He’s in good company, which is what we would have expected.
The little plaza fronting School No. 353 at 40 Baumanskaya Ulitsa in Moscow does a fine job of commemorating the birth of Russia’s first great, and still greatest, poet. A cute little bust of prepubescent Pushkin stands in the middle of a neat ensemble combining pedestals, protective chains and small, parallel flower beds. Pushkin’s African heritage and his curly hair – already forming into the shape of a laurel wreath – are very much in evidence. There is a smart, witty kid hiding behind that gaze.  The bust was sculpted by Yekaterina Belashova and was unveiled in 1967. Almost directly behind it is a memorial plaque that hangs next to the entrance to the school, which, we are told, is located where the house in which Pushkin was born once stood. Precisely, the text on the plaque reads: “Here was the house, in which A. S. Pushkin was born on May 26 (June 6), 1799.” The plaque also features the image of little Sasha – a bas relief of him, perhaps, sitting at a school desk and gazing out the window as he daydreamed about modernizing the Russian language. Or maybe not.
For those who don’t know about Russia’s thing with dating, let me explain. Until the Revolution Russia used the Julian calendar, while most of the rest of the world had long gone over to the more precise Gregorian calendar. Thus, Russian dates before the switchover in 1918 are often give in a dual manner, as above. I.e., it was May 26 in Russia when Pushkin was born, but, looking back retroactively, we know it was June 6 almost everywhere else around the world that day.
So, although it may be slightly confusing, we can, indeed, say what day, what date, Pushkin was born. The question of where that happened, the bust and plaque here notwithstanding, are another thing altogether.

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It seems safe to say that the great event did not happen here where it is commemorated at present. This address – which is currently 40 Baumanskaya Street but would have been known as Nemetskaya Street at the time of Pushkin’s birth – is almost certainly mistaken information. (Real buffs of Russian literature will immediately recall that in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Vershinin recalls how he lived at one time on Nemetskaya Street. It’s a nice little added bit of color.)
To cut to the chase I will say it is now more or less accepted that Pushkin was born in a structure that stood at the intersection of Malaya Pochtovaya [Small Post] Street and Gospitalny [Hospital] Lane. This was verified by the Moscow historian Sergei Romanyuk, whose books and articles I have used often in putting together these blogs. He wrote a long essay detailing Pushkin’s many different birth addresses in Science and Life magazine in 1999. I refer to that piece repeatedly here.
There have been other addresses as well. Until the time of the Revolution it was thought the birthplace was located in the back lot at 57 Baumanskaya Street [Nemetskaya Street]. A plaque, which is apparently lost now, once hung there. The plaque we see on the current school building, and which is seen in two photos here, was made in 1927.
Pushkin himself used to say that he was born on Bolshaya Molchanovka Street located near Sobachya [Dog’s] Square and Borisoglebsky Lane. But, according to Romanyuk, it is likely that this merely meant that Pushkin lived here when he was young and it was, perhaps, the first place he remembered living in. As Romanyuk points out, it is easy to confuse the addresses. Pushkin’s parents occupied 12 different addresses between the years of 1798 and 1812. There was one year during that period when they lived at three different locations. During that 14 year period they had six children. So one might be willing to admit that nobody in the family really remembered who was born when and where.
To add to the fun – because I love chaos, legends and fractured facts – let us enter for the record that it was thought during Pushkin’s life that he was born in St. Petersburg. The philologist and journalist Nikolai Grech, author of a textbook on new Russian literature in Pushkin’s time, wrote that Pushkin was born in the city on the Neva River. As Romanyuk tells it, “Grech’s textbook was published in early 1821 when Pushkin was in Bessarabia, and in October 1822, in a letter to his brother Lev, Alexander Sergeevich asked him to send Grech’s book. That book is still held in Pushkin’s library.”

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