Tag Archives: Sergei Yesenin

Nikolai Zadonsky plaque, Voronezh

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Until today I knew zilch about Nikolai Zadonsky (1900-1974). But, again, I am fascinated by the way a long, wandering walk around a city of culture can bring you bits and pieces of an education that you lack. Had it not been for this plaque hanging on the flaking walls of building 6A on Kommissarzhevskaya Street in Voronezh, the chances are I would never have found my way to this writer.
The first thing that struck me when I began digging into the facts is that Zadonsky has a weak, though glancing, connection to Nikolai Erdman, about whom I like to think I know quite a bit. The connection – and I said it was weak – is that Zadonsky, from his home in Voronezh, chose to align himself with Sergei Yesenin’s Imagist group of poets. Here’s how Zadonsky put it remembering those days in the early 1920s:
In those days there was a fashion of sorts – you joined up with some sort of literary school. We had Futurists and Acmeists and even some ‘nobodyists’ in Voronezh. Well, Boris Derptsky and I declared we were Imagists.”
The point here, of course, is that Zadonsky would not have crossed Erdman’s path and so there is no reason I would have run across his name. And yet, knowing this little fact about Zadonsky widens the picture for me. The Imagists are generally considered the runts of the poetic movements of the ‘teens and ‘twenties in Russia in the 20th century. The Futurists and Acmeists, especially, were high-octane. They had followings all over the country and the high quality of the poets that attached themselves to one or the other group, ensured that there was good reason to keep them in mind. The Imagists, grouped around Yesenin as the only well-known member, were often disparaged as a not-very-serious group who were more into playing pranks than anything else. Group members Anatoly Mariengof, Vadim Shershenevich, Erdman, and a few others have grown in stature over the decades, but only Erdman has achieved a fame that can stand, to one degree or another, in the vicinity of Yesenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky (Futurist), Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam (Acmeists at one time or another). All of these poets and their groups would have had strong support and popularity outside of Moscow. I’ve never thought of the Imagists in that way – but here we have Zadonsky and his friend Derptsky (born? – 1923, a little-known Voronezh poet and journalist who committed suicide when still quite young) choosing to attach themselves to Yesenin’s group. That, for me, is a small, but interesting discovery.
Zadonsky’s connection to the Imagists did not last for long, however, He traveled to Moscow in 1923 (just as the Imagists were falling apart as a group) and, with the help of Shershenvich, was introduced to Yesenin. The young poet from the provinces handed over some of his poetry to his famed hero and asked what he thought. Yesenin put an end to the young man’s illusions of grandeur. Again, let’s let Zadonsky himself tell it (as reported, like the previous quote, in a bibliographical work about Yesenin and his circle):
Yesenin reportedly told Zadonsky, “There are some good lines in your poetry. But you are a long way from genuine mastery. You’ve got to work hard. You must write poems in such a way that they set the human soul on fire, turn it inside out, and leave no one impassive. If you can’t write like that, you’re better off not writing at all!”
Zadonsky sums up the little story by adding, “After that I quit writing poetry.”

Zadonsky did not, however, quit writing. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s he wrote plays and worked as a journalist. A well-researched online biography published on the excellent Literary Map of Voronezh Oblast states he wrote over 2,000 newspaper items between 1918 and 1924. His first play, “Money,” was published in Voronezh in 1920 and he wrote a large number of plays after that. Again, I must say that, although I have studied Soviet-era theater and drama in relative detail over the last few decades, I had never come across any plays by Zadonsky. Leaning on information in various places I can verify that he wrote a minimum of 15 plays, but since sources often add the words “and others” to their lists, I suspect the real number was higher yet. In 1934 Maxim Gorky signed the paper declaring that Zadonsky was admitted as a “candidate” to the Writers Union – and throughout his life he preserved this document as a keepsake. He received full membership in the Writers Union in 1939.
The most successful and fruitful years of Zadonsky’s life as a writer began in 1942, prompted by one of those wonderful haphazard things that life tends to throw our way, and continued even after he suffered a stroke in 1965. That great Voronezh Literary Map website tells the story as follows: “The soldiers of the Workers-Peasant Red Army and the partisans of the Denis Davydov squadron sent the writer a letter in 1942 in connection with their reading of Zadonsky’s essay, ‘Partisans.’ In their letter the soldiers gave the writer the idea of researching and telling the story of the life of D.V. Davydov in more detail.
And, indeed, Zadonsky began traveling around the country, visiting places connected to life of Davydov, a famed poet and hussar from Alexander Pushkin’s group of friends, and he ended up producing a work of such depth, detail and veracity, that he almost had no choice but to accept historical prose as his new calling. Zadonsky’s first so-called “historical chronicle,” Denis Davydov, was published (to the best I can determine) in 1952 in Kuibyshev. It has been reprinted countless times since then. He followed this study with other, equally popular “historical chronicles,” such as,  A Troubled Time (1954), Kondraty Bulavin (1959), Liberia on Don (1960), The Decembrist’s Grandson (1963), Secrets of Bygone Days (1964), and Mountains and Stars (1965, about Nikolai Muravyov, a Russian statesman whose life was devoted to developing Siberia). Again, there appear to have been even more of these historical studies/novels, but the online sources are incomplete and sometimes contradictory.
Zadonsky apparently carried on a long friendship with fellow Voronezh son Andrei Platonov, about whom he wrote in his literary memoirs Amid the Stream of Life (1969). Among other books about writers was his There, Where a Great Writer Lived, about Lev Tolstoy and Yasnaya Polyana.
Zadonsky (whose real last name was Koptev) was born in the city of Zadonsk in the Voronezh gubernia (similar to a county). He  struck out on his own by finding work as a typographer in Yelets at the age of 16 then moved to the big city of Voronezh in 1918. He later moved back to Yelets for awhile, but lived the majority of his adult life in Voronezh. He occupied an apartment in the building pictured here from 1953 until his death in 1974.

 

 

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Sergei Yesenin bust, Voronezh

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Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) checked into the Angleterre Hotel in St. Petersburg 91 years ago today. Three days later, December 28, 1925, his body would be carried out, dead, by a few friends, including the poet Nikolai Leopoldovich Braun. The official version then, and the version that remained in force until the late ’80s/early ’90s was that Yesenin had committed suicide. He was found hanging from a rope in his hotel room, or so they said. In fact, that version has taken many hits since the Perestroika days. Nobody has proven anything beyond a doubt, and the cautious still tend to posit suicide as the probable reason for the poet’s death at the age of 30, but I must say, that rendition looks weaker and weaker as the years pass.
Yesenin was a bit of a loose cannon and the Soviet State, slowly getting a grip on things and people by the mid-1920s did not like surprises of the kind that Yesenin could toss off. This was particularly true because Yesenin was wildly popular among the people, thus anything he said or did could have serious influence on public opinion. Add to that the fact that authoritarian states simply don’t like anyone or anything that questions order – directly or indirectly. Yesenin, by his freewheeling behavior, did anything but support the notion of moderation or orderliness. He loved to drink, he loved to carouse, he loved to play practical jokes. He had a flair for picking unorthodox wives, one being the American dancer Isador Duncan (at a time when suspicions about foreigners was increasing daily), and another being Sophia Tolstaya, granddaughter of the great writer Leo, and, therefore, a member of a family, the prestige of which the Soviet authorities wished very much to use in their favor. If that wasn’t enough, in the period leading to his death, Yesenin battled clinical depression, even spending some time in an insane asylum where the doctors were “unsuccessful” in treating his illness – if that’s what it was.
I need to say: I am not a Yesenin expert by any stretch of the imagination. I think I would need six months to a year of serious research to catch up on all the writings – serious and scandalous – that have been unleashed on us about Yesenin and his death in recent decades. It remains a hot topic; there is a lot of speculation, even misinformation, out there. Yandex.ru, the Russian version of Google, offers up 17 million leads when you type in “murder of Sergei Yesenin.”
Wikipedia offers up a five-point argument as to why the version of suicide does not hold up. Frankly, I think just one of those points is enough to set off alarms at all levels:
Yesenin had a fresh wound on his shoulder, one on his forehead and a bruise under one of his eyes. A few weeks before his death, many of his friends claimed that he had been carrying a revolver, but this weapon was never discovered. His jacket was missing, and he had to be covered with a sheet from the hotel. The ligature with which he purportedly hanged himself, made from a belt that later disappeared, was reportedly not a hanging one: it was only holding the body to one side, to the right. Nevertheless, no further investigations were documented to have been made in this direction. The room where he died was also not examined.’
Sound like a historical sieve? Does to me.
But that is only just the beginning. We have supposed confessions by at least one of the murderers, Nikolai Leontyev, who is said to have told Viktor Titarenko, a co-worker, in his old age, “Vityok, you know I shot Sergei Yesenin with this hand right here.” Okay, we’ve all read Dostoevsky and we know there are people who for their own reasons wish to confess to crimes they did not commit. Still. That’s only the beginning. Viktor Kuznetsov, the author of a book about the assassination of Yesenin, described the act of murder in more detail in an interview that is published on the Esenin.ru website. His version is that Trotsky had given a secret order to arrest Yesenin in order to interrogate him. Kuznetsov picks up the narrative:
The point of the interrogations was that there was a desire to recruit Yesenin as a secret collaborator with the GPU [for the uninitiated – one of many forerunners to the KGB]. I don’t think Trotsky gave the order to kill the poet, but that’s what happened. Apparently, Yesenin put up a fight and gave [Yakov] Blyumkin a hard shove, after which Blyumkin fell. At that point Leontyev fired… In the photo we can see the mark of a bullet wound. After that Blyumkin hit Yesenin in the forehead with the handle of a revolver. After the murder Blyumkin contacted Trotsky from Leningrad and asked what to do with Yesenin’s body. Trotsky replied that tomorrow a newspaper article would be published under his name about how the unbalanced, decadent poet had taken his own life and everyone would remain silent. That is precisely what happened.”
So there, at least in Kuznetsov’s version of events, are the two men who killed Yesenin: Nikolai Leontyev and Yakov Blyumkin.

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The aforementioned Esenin.ru site is a fount of information. It has a separate section called Death of the Poet that offers 94 links to important sources on this topic. Four of those links are to comments made by Nikolai Nikolaevich Braun, a poet who is the son of another poet, and friend of Yesenin, Nikolai Leopoldovich Braun. According to the younger Braun, his father could not mention what he knew about Yesenin’s death when he wrote his memoirs. However, he did pass on that information to his son, who has spent no small effort seeking to bring that information to the public’s attention. Asked in an interview on Esenin.ru whether he believed that Yesinin had died while being interrogated, Braun replied, “Yes, but to be more exact, as a result of being tortured during interrogation. That is the precise conclusion of my father, the well-known poet Nikolai Leopoldovich Braun, who knew Sergei Yesenin. In December 1925 he and other writers carried his [Yesenin’s] body out of the Angleterre hotel.
Braun provides a wealth of convincing arguments, including this, the story about how Braun, Sr., and Boris Lavrenyov were summoned from the editorial offices of Zvezda magazine to the Angleterre:
“[Pavel Medvedev] asked them to come, saying that Yesenin had committed suicide. The writers were needed to see Yesenin dead and to confirm the version of his suicide. It was Medvedev, [Mikhail] Froman and [Volf] Erlikh who explained how Yesenin had committed suicide in the hotel. But even they, as it turned out, had seen nothing with their own eyes. They had also been ‘told’ about it. The corpse was already prepared for demonstration. However, the original photographs, which we now have, reveal something quite different. Yesenin’s hands had been cut by what appears to be a razor. But the cuts are not made crosswise, but rather lengthwise, as is done in torture. His left eye had been smashed in. There were two holes just above the bridge of the nose and another over the right eye. But Nikolai Leopoldovich told me of a ‘deep, penetrating wound under the right eyebrow,’ which was ‘fatal,’ a ‘bruise under his left eye,’ and ‘bruises from a beating.’ In times of famine, in the years 1919-20, in order to survive, father had worked as an ambulance orderly. He knew anatomy well. He saw many corpses, including those who had hung themselves. But Yesenin had no bluing of the face, nor did his tongue hang out.”
Later in the interview, Braun, Jr., adds:
Braun and Lavrenyov categorically refused to sign the protocol, so to speak, that Yesenin had killed himself. At first glance the protocol was put together clumsily and primitively. Nonetheless it was already signed by the GPU officers Volf Erlikh and Pavel Medvedev, the Secretary of the Writers Union Mikhail Froman and the poet Vsevolod Rozhdestvensky. Nikolai Leopoldovich immediately reproached the latter: ‘Seva, how could you sign this?! You didn’t see Yesenin put the noose over his neck!’ Rozhdestvensky replied, ‘I was told they needed one more signature.'”
As for the images I share today – they are photos of a sculpture by Anatoly Bichukov which stands at the intersection of Kardashov and Karl Marx streets in Voronezh. It was unveiled October 25, 2006 shortly after a film, Yesenin, by Igor Zaitsev, ran on Russian television. Starring popular actor Sergei Bezrukov, and scripted by his father Vitaly Bezrukov, the film embraced the version of death-by-murder. The film was not treated well by critics, but a website where you can watch the film for free gives it a 94.8% positive rating by spectators. Bezrukov himself chose this place for the statue and donated a large amount of money to cover the costs of erecting it. Bezrukov has made a career out of playing dead famous people – Vladimir Vysotsky, Alexander Pushkin and Yesenin. The famous actor Valentin Gaft, who wields a wicked pen when writing popular epigrams, has twice lowered the boom on Bezrukov. One reads, “Dying is not frightening. Frightening is that they’ll make a film about you and Bezrukov will play you.” Gaft also offered up this doozy:

He was Pushkin, Yesenin and Vysotsky.
He was Bely and soon will be Mayakovsky…
Then it will finally be down to Akhmatova…
And there will be no one left in Russia to play!

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Pavel Vasilyev plaque, Moscow

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It  seems to be a time of discovering poets for me. A few days ago it was Richard Ter-Pogosian. Now it is another. I was walking through my former city of Moscow yesterday and happened upon a plaque I didn’t know commemorating a poet I’d never heard of – Pavel Vasilyev, who lived in this building at 26 Fourth Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street in 1936 and 1937. Yes, you probably guessed right: that latter date is also the poet’s year of death. The meat grinder year. The year of blood. The year of hatred, lies, villainy and infamy. What will ever be done to wash away the sins of that year? Nothing? Can nothing wash those sins away? And what happens if that is true?
But let’s narrow the conversation a bit; bring it back to this new poet in my life. These days, with our instant access to information, it is not difficult to begin understanding the stature that Vasilyev enjoyed for a brief time in his life. The number of poets, writers and others singing his praises in the late 1920s, early 1930s is more than merely impressive – it is downright imposing. As Valentin Antonov wrote in an eye-opening blog in 2009, you can begin the list with Alexei Tolstoy, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Ryurik Ivlev and Vladimir Soloukhin. Our purposes today will be served by Boris Pasternak, who wrote in 1956 (presumably taking part in Vasilyev’s “rehabilitation,” which occurred that year):
At the beginning of the 1930s Pavel Vasilyev impressed me upon first discovery approximately as had Yesenin and Mayakovsky before him. He was comparable to them, particularly to Yesenin, by his creative expressiveness, the power of his gift and his great, infinite promise, because he lacked the tragic explosiveness, which internally cut short the lives of the latter two, and he commanded a cold composure allowing him to control his turbulent instincts. He possessed that bright, happy and quick imagination, without which great poetry does not exist, the likes of which in such abundance I have never seen again in all the years that have passed since  his death.”
That is no rote, routine recommendation. Pasternak here, in just a few lines, places Vasilyev among (and to some extent, above) the greatest poets of his time.
Wolfgang Kasack, the great German scholar, called Vasilyev’s poetry “antiurban, erotic and associated with the free life of the Cossacks.” Later in his entry in his Dictionary of Russian Literature since 1917, he adds: “Vasilyev’s poetry is characterized by an earthy, graphic power. Fairy-tale elements mingle with Cossack history and a revolutionary present. Strong characters, powerful animals, fierce action and the colorful landscape of the steppes are expressively combined in scenes that create great forward momentum with varied rhythms. Bloody revolutionary events experienced in Vasilyev’s childhood are presented without reference to historical persons or incidents.”
Vasilyev’s stance – and one did have to have a stance in those years; it was virtually impossible to stand and watch tumultuous events pass by – was a confused one. As an 11 year-old schoolboy he wrote a poem dedicated to Vladimir Lenin that was picked up and turned into a song by his teacher and classmates. He seemed to sing the praises of the Revolution at times, while at others he was clearly at odds with its consequences. By the early 1930s he was constantly running into trouble. His fate was probably sealed when Maxim Gorky (yes, that slipperly ol’ Maxim Gorky again) in 1934 accused him of “drunkenness, hooliganism and violating the law on residence registration.”
What the hell? Was Gorky playing the role of the pot calling the kettle black? I don’t know; I’ll have to look into this some day. But here are some of the facts of the end process:
Vasilyev was first arrested in 1932, although was released before long. Gorky jumped on his back in 1934 and, surely consequently, Vasilyev was kicked out of the brand-new Writers Union in January 1935. Six months later he was arrested again, this time for engaging in what, by all accounts, was a nasty, drunken, public fight with a poet known as Jack (Yakov) Altauzen. Judging by the record, Vasilyev’s antisemitic views were well known, and this brawl appears to have been a flare-up of racist behavior. Vasilyev was released early again, in 1936. In February 1937 he was arrested still again for the supposed crime of belonging to a terrorist group whose purpose was to assassinate Joseph Stalin. He was condemned to be shot and the sentence was carried out July 16, 1937, in the Lefortovo prison. Similar to his contemporary, Vsevolod Meyerhold, his remains lie in an unmarked grave in the Donskoi Monastery.

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Pavel Vasilyev (1909-1937) was a restless man. Even with his family as a youth he traveled often from town to town. His father was a teacher and held many different jobs. The poet was born in the town of Zaisan in what is now known as the Republic of Kazakhstan. Other cities figuring in his biography are Pavlodar, Sandyktav Station, Atbasar, Petropavlovsk, Omsk, Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Novosibirsk and Moscow. He spent time as a fisherman and prospector on the Irtysh and Selemidzha rivers. He also worked as a journalist, leading him toward the life of writer and poet. His first published poem was called “October,” and was printed in Vladivostok on Nov. 6, 1926. His poems were soon picked up by many of the top publications in the Soviet Union, including Izvestia, Novy Mir, Literary gazette, Ogonyok and many others. At the same time, much of his work could not be published. For example, in the early 1930s he wrote a series of ten folkloric, historical verse epics, although only one, The Salt Riot (1934), saw the light of day. Either because of his poetry, his personality, or his intolerant world view – or, perhaps, because of all three together – he eventually came upon his downfall. It is accepted knowledge that Vasilyev was the prototype for the main character, an antihero, spy and ruffian named Andrei Abrikosov in Ivan Pyryev’s popular film The Party Ticket (1936). Note that he was portrayed here as a spy a year before he was executed for being a spy…
I don’t know enough about Vasilyev to take sides for or against him in regards to his character or lack thereof. I do, however, see a depressingly familiar case of a talented, unusual person being singled out by the in-crowd and turned into a victim and a scapegoat. The story of Pavel Vasilyev may be messy and paradoxical. But it ends with a gunshot – probably to his head – which gives him certain rights in retrospect.
Here is a poem written in February 1937, presumably after he had been arrested:

Red-breast finches flutter up…
So soon, to my misfortune,
I’ll see the green eye of the wolf
In hostile northern lands.

We shall be heartsick and forlorn,
Though fragrant as wild honey.
Unnoticed, time frames will collapse
As gray enshrouds our curls.

And then I’ll tell you, sweet:
“The days fly by like leaves upon the wind,
It’s good that in a former life
We found each other then lost it all…”

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Sergei Yesenin home, Moscow

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I’ve been working under a double whammy that has kept me from making posts to this blog. I’ve been crazy busy, and then my computer with all my photos died. The guy at the shop swears he’ll fix it, but until he does, I’m running on zero. As a result I just now ran out with my camera to grab some shots of a place not far from where I live – the house in which the poet Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) was registered as a resident from 1911 to 1918. (Many sources say he did not actually move here from his birthplace in the Ryazan region until 1912.) He didn’t live here for that entire period, but this home apparently was his official place of residence.
It’s an odd little location. I can hardly think of a better place to put something that you want no one ever to find or enjoy once they’ve found it. The address is 24 Bolshoi Strochenovsky Lane, bldg. 2. A small plaque announcing the presence of the museum is almost lost in a small sea of other plaques indicating the location here of five or six businesses. The building itself is located behind a tall fence and is blocked off from access by one of those awful little booths manned by a grumpy guard. You pass through a double door and, when you reach the guard, he is just itching to tell you you can’t go through. There’s a huge sign: “Entry by pass only!” But a magical little thing happens when you say you want to visit the Yesenin museum – the guard’s face goes limp with disappointment and he waves you through the second door, the one to the left. What cracked me up was that it doesn’t matter if you go through the door to the left or the one to the right – where you must have a pass to pass – you still end up in the same open courtyard in front of the Yesenin house. But them’s just details.
Yesenin lived here in Apartment No. 6 with his father Alexander Yesenin, who worked in a butcher shop belonging to a certain N.V. Krylov. This two-story, wooden building, erected in 1891, belonged to Krylov. The original structure perished in a fire and it was rebuilt  in 1992, becoming the Yesenin museum in 1995. Apparently, the original idea was to make the entire building into a museum, but economic realities were such that, in the end, just two rooms of approximately 40 square meters each were turned over to the museum. The second floor is occupied by one or more business concerns.

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The young poet was still searching for himself and his place in the world at the time he was registered here as a resident . At first he took a job alongside his father in Krylov’s meat store, but did not last long there. This was much to the chagrin of his father, who hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. In March 1913 Yesenin took a job as a corrector’s assistant at the nearby Sytin printing press, about which I have written previously in this space.  Yesenin’s first wife Anna Izryadnova had this to say about this period in the poet’s life (as quoted in the Walks in Moscow site):
“His mood was depressed – he was a poet, no one wanted to understand that. Editors were not publishing him, his father was grumbling that he was loafing and that he should get a job. He had the reputation of a leader, he attended meetings [of the Surikov literary-musical circle? – JF] and distributed illegal literature. He would throw himself at books, spent all his free time reading, wasted all his pay on books and magazines, never at all thinking about how to live…”
Yesenin and Izryadnova met on the job at the Sytin printing concern where she was also a corrector. They never were married officially, although they had a son, Yury, in December 1914. That, incidentally, is precisely the month that Yesenin quit his job working for Sytin and devoted himself entirely to a life of writing poetry. His first ever published poem, “Birch Tree,” appeared in January 1914 in a magazine, The Little World (Mirok), published by Sytin in January 1914. In 1915 he headed for St. Petersburg for awhile, although this home in Moscow continued to be his official residence.
I could not enter the museum today because I ran out not thinking of anything but shooting photos. The entry fee is 200 rubles and I didn’t have a kopeck on me. However, the door was open so I snapped the picture immediately below, of a small statue of Yesenin that stands in the entryway. If you’d like to see some of the exhibits inside, another Moscow Walks site hosts a fairly large gallery of photos.

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Imagist Bookstore, Moscow

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Now here’s a case of something I had completely forgotten. I knew it once; I remember being flabbergasted when I first found out about it. But then it slipped my mind. As my friend the choreographer and movement guru Gennady Abramov jokes about the delights of growing older and losing memory: “Isn’t it wonderful? Every day is full of news!”
Well, that applies to me in regards to this small little monument to Russian literary history on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. The address for sticklers is 15, Bldg. 1. I now remember coming upon it some 25 or 26 years ago when I first arrived in Moscow, soaked wet behind the ears, to begin my research on the playwright Nikolai Erdman. I knew well that Erdman had begun his life in literature as a poet and that he had published a handful of his poems in various publications put out by the Imagists, a group of writers who congregated around the famous poet Sergei Yesenin. I’d never seen any of the actual publications, but that is one of the things I expected to be able to do soon at the Lenin Library, where I had an application put in for a reader’s card. But this day I was merely out walking around Moscow, getting a feel for the city I expected to be living in for just the next 10 months. And then it happened. I looked up at a little plaque on a building as I approached the Moscow Conservatory from the north, and I was thunderstruck. The plaque stated that Sergei Yesenin had worked right here in a small bookshop that sold, among other things, the books and magazines published by the Imagists. Holy Moses. A real-live, brick and mortar place to put Erdman and his colleagues in a real context. I walked back and forth and looked in the window and walked inside and just looked around at the air there. It was a marvelous discovery.
And then life set in and I forgot. I didn’t stay in Moscow 10 months, I stayed 26 years and counting. You’d be amazed at all I’ve forgotten in that period! That is, until I was recently walking along Bolshaya Nikitskaya towards the Mayakovsky Theater from the south and – boom! – there it was. Again. That reminder of Yesenin and Erdman and Rostislav Ivlev and Shershenevich and Anatoly Mariengof… the Imagists. As Gena Abramov promised me, I experienced the thrill of discovery all over again!
The Imagists, as the name implies, refers to a short-lived group of Russian poets from about 1918 to 1922 who ostensibly played around with images in their poetry. They put out a handful of manifestos, like everybody else did, proclaiming the greatness of their task. It was all very much in the spirit of the day. They may have put out one more issue of their eclectic periodical Inn for Travelers in the Sublime in 1923, but, still, by that time they were done for. In the historical record the Imagists are routinely referred to as a group of semi-harmless hooligans, not nearly worthy of the respect and attention that is offered to, say, the Futurists or the Acmeists. It may be a fair assessment, although the Imagists were of no small interest. Every single individual connected with them was quite a personality. These days the memoirs written by Ivlev and Mariengof are oft-quoted and Mariengof has even become something of a cult figure.

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The fact of the matter is that, in their time, the Imagists – purportedly – were more famous for their hijinks than their high culture. In one famous, frequently-mentioned, incident, they all went out late at night when everybody else was sleeping and they “vandalized” several street signs around what we now know as Strastnoi Boulevard. They blacked or whitened out the name of various streets, replacing them with their own names. Thus, as the legend goes, Muscovites awoke in the morning to be greeted by the unfamiliar names of Yesenin Street, Erdman Lane and Mariengof Road. If I remember correctly, the police even got into the act at some point.
Still, I wonder if the Imagists have been given short shrift. Even to this day one of the most important studies of the Imagists – Russian Imagism 1919-1924 – remains a work written by the great scholar Vladimir Markov. It’s very nice that he wrote a book about the Imagists, but Markov was a specialist on the Futurists. He couldn’t have been a little biased there, could he? I’m just asking.
I’ve always thought (in those periods when I have not been visited by forgetfulness) that this little bookstore says something important about the Imagists. I mean, if you’re going to actually rent a space, find the money to pay the rent, get people to work for you (or, as Yesenin apparently did, actually spend hours out of your day working at the store yourself), doesn’t this imply a seriousness of intent that goes beyond that which would be expected of some “hooligans”? Again, I’m just saying. One thing I do know is that the historical record is clumsy and distorted. It can’t be otherwise. It’s written by human beings.
With that thought in mind, allow me to insert the ending of a poem, “Let Time Strike the Hours,” that Erdman wrote in 1921, and which was first published in 1987 in the popular Soviet magazine Ogonyok (rather like the old Life magazine in the U.S.) by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko:

But I know weighty glory shall sprinkle
Even my cold lips with dust.
And my head will exchange this burnished steel helmet of hair
For one made of silver.
But I shall not stagger beneath it, I shall not tremble,
I will accept the joyless gift as my due,
And a rainbow shall unfurl before a frozen road
Into the heavens with a triumphal arc.

Children! Children!
Study the polar silence of the night…

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Sytin Printing Press, Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa, Moscow

 

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Our little march up and down Pyatnitskaya Street this week ends today with a building I see every time I emerge onto Pyatnitskaya from the courtyard in which I live. It’s a beautiful, stately old structure that has been abandoned for many of the years I have been here. That’s beginning to change and I’m thrilled about that. In the section of the building that faces 2nd Monetchikovsky Lane (the glass windows running away from the main peach/white structure in the picture above) several restaurants have gone into the first floor. One of them, Coin, has a great, inexpensive “business lunch” from 1 to 5 p.m. every weekday. You can often find Oksana and me there after 4 p.m. But, as with so many locations in Moscow, there is much, much more here than meets the contemporary eye.
This huge building, and many of the wings and additions stretching out over the entire city block covering Pyatnitskaya 71-73, once belonged to Ivan Sytin, one of the great publishers in Russian history. He was from a simple family and was not overly educated. Anton Chekhov described him as “a great, but completely unlettered man who came from the people. A bundle of energy together with slackness… and lack of firmness.” (I pull this quote from Charles A. Ruud and Marina E. Soroka’s introduction to My Life for the Book: The Memoirs of a Russian Publisher.) But Sytin had a nose for publishing and business and, leaning on the advice of many important cultural figures – Leo Tolstoy and Chekhov among them – he effected a revolution in Russian publishing. He made books, chapbooks, picture books, maps and such things available at extremely low cost, meaning they could reach masses. At one time or another he published the works of Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Krylov, Tolstoy, Chekhov and many others. He obtained the property on which his huge printing factory was built in 1887 and he put it to use immediately. Later he had the architect Adolf Erikhson build a fabulous new home for his business – that was in 1903 and that is pretty much what we see today. Because of Sytin’s stinginess and his exploitative relationship to his workers, this building was gutted by fire during the Revolution of 1905. However, it was rebuilt and working again within the year. It’s also worth noting that those same workers, or their “descendants,” if you will, were extremely loyal to Sytin. When the new Soviet government appropriated the building it took them nearly three years to get the workers to accept Communist Party representation. The workers were unhappy that their boss had been treated so badly.

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According to the great Know Moscow website,  many of the top writers of the age paid visits to these offices, including Chekhov, Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Mayakovsky. The poet Sergei Yesenin, before he was a poet or Yesenin in anyone’s mind but his own, worked as a copy editor here when he was 18 years old in 1913. Also of interest is that the future playwright Alexander Ostrovsky lived in his father’s home in a building on this plot that I am assuming was destroyed at some point. If I understand correctly, this would have been somewhere near the point where the peach and yellow buildings meet in the very last photo below.
I personally encountered Sytin for the first time in Nikolai Erdman’s black comedy The Warrant. At the beginning of Act III the old Avtonom Sigismundovich is horrified to hear that his tattered old copy of the newspaper Tsarist News has perished, i.e., was used as toilet paper by his servant Agafangel.
“How could it have perished?” Avtonom Sigismundovich asks. “My, what a healthy issue it was. The print. The ideas. The letters. Why do you think that was? Because people then were great. Take Sytin, for example. He published the newspaper Russian Word. And, oh, how he did publish it! He built a three-story building and printed it on every floor. Every time you’d ride by, you’d think to yourself, ‘There it is. The bulwark of the Russian empire. The three-story Russian Word…'”
In fact, Sytin began publishing Russian Word at the behest of Chekhov, who believed the country needed a good, cheap newspaper. As for the translation from the Erdman play, that’s taken from my own translation published in The Major Plays of Nikolai Erdman.

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Sergei Yesenin Monument, Moscow

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Not many think much of this monument to Yesenin. It’s located on Tverskoi Boulevard more or less between the Yermolova Apartment museum on the north side of the boulevard and the Gorky Moscow Art Theater on the south side. I rather think of the statue as a too-sweet drink. I love sweets, so that’s not entirely bad. But, as has been said elsewhere by another fine poet, “too much of nothing can make a man ill at ease.” As far as we can tell from old photos the statue looks very much like Yesenin. That’s something, I guess. It’s possible we can see in it the pretty face that made Isadora Duncan lose her mind for the young poet. But it’s no coincidence that when I went walking around the statue I couldn’t find any angles that gave me any new information. Every shot I took looked the same, just some were closer up, others were farther away. Yesenin was actually an interesting person and an interesting poet. He was considered something of a “hooligan” and when he, according to the official version at the time, committed suicide at the age of 30 in 1925, there was a scandalous wave of copy-cat suicides. It was only after Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union that theories arose that Yesenin was actually murdered by the secret police on Dec. 28 in his room in the Angleterre Hotel in Leningrad.  I like the drip of pigeon waste running down Yesenin’s right breast in the close up here. Oddly enough, there’s something humanizing about it.

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