Tag Archives: Vasily Aksyonov

Vikenty Veresaev house, Tula

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Vikenty Veresaev, real last name Smidovich, was born in this house in Tula in 1867. He lived here until 1884, when he left for St. Petersburg to study literature and history at St. Petersburg University. Even as his various professions and aspirations took him to other cities for long periods of time – notably Tartu, where he studied medicine, and later Moscow, where he was a famed writer – this was a home he would return to frequently. Its address today is 82 Gogolevskaya Street (Peshekhonskaya Street when Veresaev lived here), just five blocks from Tula’s main drag, then called Kievskaya Street, now called Lenin Prospekt.
Veresaev is one of an elite club of Russian writers, whose first job was as a medical doctor. The most famous of them are Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vasily Aksyonov, Grigory Gorin and Alexander Rozenbaum. In fact, Veresaev felt so called to medicine that he chose to take it up as a profession after already completing his first degree as a historian-philologist. He officially became a doctor in 1894 upon graduation from Derptsky University in Tartu (it actually had been renamed Yuryevsky University in 1893 – and is now known as the famed Tartu University).
Veresaev moved to St. Petersburg in 1894 where, in 1896, he took up a position at the city’s hospital for contagious diseases (later to be named Botkin Hospital) where he doubled as a resident physician and the head of the hospital library.
Veresaev had had inclinations to write ever since his school days. His first publication was a poem called “Contemplation” in 1885. He published his first story, “Enigma,” in 1887. By this time he was using the pseudonym of Veresaev. Even as he completed his medical studies, Veresaev was embarking on an active literary career. He wrote and published numerous short stories in the early 1890s and, in 1892, he published a series of essays, The Kingdom of the Underworld, about the life of miners in Donetsk. For the most part he published his work in the Marxist press. The same year that he graduated from medical school, 1994, he published his first significant novella, No Way (aka No Road), following it with another highly-touted work, Pestilent Air, in 1898. Both works captured the growing sensation among Russian youth (and not only youth) that the stagnant political and social realities of the time were leading the country to a crisis. At this time Veresaev was more or less in complete agreement with liberal and social groups. In fact, his decision to become a doctor had been influenced by his desire to have the opportunity to “go to the people” and help them. The notoriety that Veresaev earned with No Way and Pestilent Air turned to downright popularity when,  in 1901, he published his first major, and still best-known, collection, A Doctor’s Notes (aka Memoirs of a Physician). Here he shocked some and thrilled others with unblinking portraits of real life told from the viewpoint of a doctor. Veresaev addressed the mixed reaction in his introduction to the collection as a book:
This resentment strikes me as symbolic. We so fear the truth in all things, and are so unaware of how important it is, that all we need do is barely open up one small corner of it for people to begin feeling uneasy: Why did you do that? What is the use? What will the uninitiated say? How will they understand the truth presented?
Plus ça change, I guess I want to say to that!

Notes of a Doctor not only put Veresaev into the first ranks of contemporary Russian writers, it also brought down on him the attention of the Russian secret police. For his “crime” of protesting the brutal treatment of students demonstrating against the government, he was sent back to Tula in 1901 to make it easier for the authorities to keep an eye on him. In 1903, however, he was allowed to return to Moscow, and, shortly thereafter, was drafted into service as a military doctor for the duration of the Russo-Japanese War. This led to his next prominent work, a series of essays written from 1904 to 1906 about his experiences at war.
From roughly 1905 until the Russian Revolution in 1917, Veresaev wrote and published less than he had in the past, although he did not stop writing altogether. Significantly, he published a work titled A Life Alive: On Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, in 1910. At the time it may have seemed like an unexpected foray into history and criticism, but, in fact, this would be a pointer to his future. Also in 1910 Veresaev travelled to Greece where his lifelong love for that culture was reawakened. When he reemerged after the revolution, it was primarily as a literary historian. It was his second birth, if you will, as a writer. His books about Gogol, Chekhov and Pushkin have been highly regarded ever since they appeared in print in the 1920s and 1930s. Of particular value are Pushkin in Life (1926) and Gogol in Life (1933).
According to one online Russian-language biography, “Vikenty Veresaev linked his literary destiny with the ‘new life,’ in this he echoed Maxim Gorky. His writing style is characterized not only by vivid realism, but also by the subtlest psychological observations about his own experiences. Autobiography was a distinctive feature of his work.
Translation was another field of activity that Veresaev devoted himself to for almost his entire adult life. He began toying with translation as a young man – he knew ancient Greek – and his translations of Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad are still read today. He was awarded the Pushkin Prize in 1919 for his translations of ancient Greek literature, and he was awarded the Stalin Prize (first degree) in 1943 for the sum of his life’s work.
One doesn’t see much commentary about this former liberal’s attitude to events as they unfolded in the early Soviet years. There is, however, his novel Deadlocked (1922), which showed an aversion to the violence being unleashed at the time by the Bolsheviks. In any case, two facts stand out – 1) his increased interest in the past in his writings after the Revolution, and 2) his receiving of the Stalin Prize, something that was always handed out by the Leader as thanks for perceived loyalty. Veresaev appears to have receded into a relatively safe space in the years leading up to and including the Purges, when so many of his colleagues would have suffered or disappeared.
A few words on Veresaev’s parents who were rather remarkable people themselves. His father Vikenty Smidovich was of Polish and German extraction, and was one of the leading Tula doctors of his time. He founded the first hospital in Tula as well as the city’s first sanitary commission, which sought to minimize unhealthy public practices. Veresaev’s mother Yelizaveta Yunitskaya was a noblewoman from the Mirgorod area of Ukraine. She also had Greek ancestors. The organizer of the first kindergarten in Russia in 1872, she gave birth to 11 children, of whom eight survived.
Veresaev died in 1945, just less than a month after the end of World War II. He was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery.


Vasily Aksyonov home, Moscow

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Here is another of those places that you won’t find without me. There’s no plaque here, no information listed, nothing to be found on the internet. The marvelous Soviet-Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov lived here in the late 1970s, right up until he was essentially pushed out of the Soviet Union in 1980 and deprived of his citizenship. The address is 21 Krasnoarmeiskaya (Red Army) Street. Aksyonov occupied Apt. no. 20. I know this from the old 1976 Writers Union phone book I have in my library. I’ll say right away that I could make this post about any number of well known writers. This building was essentially built for the Writers Union and so a large number of writers ended up receiving (under the old Soviet system) apartments at this address. For example I on occasion visited the horribly underrated short-story writer Nikolai Shakhbazov here in the early 1990s. I’ll find a way to write something about this remarkable writer and man some other day. A handful of the best contemporary Russian playwrights still live in this building today – specifically, I mean Yelena Gremina and Mikhail Ugarov.
But at this moment I am thinking about Aksyonov, a man who had no small influence on me. I had the great good fortune to be a student of Aksyonov’s for a year when I was in grad school working on my Master’s at George Washington University. Aksyonov had just showed up in D.C. and was at loose ends. I don’t know the reasons behind how and why Dept. Chair Charles A. Moser was able to hire Aksyonov to teach a seminar in Soviet literature, but he did. Moser had connections to the prominent dissident Vladimir Bukovsky – there was a memorial Bukovsky library in the GW Slavic Dept. – and maybe that was the key. Furthermore, Moser’s wife was the daughter of a prominent Bulgarian politician and political activist in exile (Georgi Mihov Dimitrov), thus putting him in circles of eminent exiles and dissidents. Whatever the reason, however, Aksyonov did end up for a short while (two semesters) at George Washington University, and I happened to be there to be one of his few students. I have always been curious as to why this information (Aksyonov as a GW professor, obviously, not my status as his student) is virtually absent in the historical record. His longtime tenure at George Mason University in Virginia is usually given as his first professional home after ending up in the U.S. Actually, it was Charles Moser and GW that extended that first hand (after Carl C. Proffer put Aksyonov up for the first few months in Ann Arbor, MI). At the time of Akysonov’s death in 2009 I wrote about him at some length in a blog on the site of The Moscow Times. There isn’t much more to pull out of my memory than what I put down there. But I will share a few more stray thoughts.

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After the Fall of the Wall and the collapse of communism, Aksyonov returned to Moscow, at least on occasion, for extended periods. His now-Russian citizenship was returned to him and, as I understood it, he acquired an apartment in Moscow that he could call home. My friend The Moscow Times photographer Igor Tabakov reminds me that this was in the high rise on the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment. Aksyonov occasionally figured in cultural news. I saw him from time to time on talk shows, in new documentary films, or as the subject of interviews in newscasts. Wikipedia tells me that he left the U.S. in 2004 for Biarritz, France, and that he split his time from then on between Russia and France. But he was a regular visitor and extended resident in Moscow throughout most of the 1990s. I ran into him at the Vakhtangov Theater one night; this would have been in the mid-1990s. He hadn’t changed a bit since the last time I saw him in 1981, he still had that wonderful swagger and that pleasant crooked smile with a twinkle in his eye. He responded warmly when I reminded him where we had crossed paths. Standing under portraits of Mikhail Ulyanov and Pyotr Fomenko, we chatted for a few minutes like old acquaintances before the bell rang that brings intermission to an end. The last time I saw him before his death was at the Sovremennik Theater. I have forgotten what the premiere was that night, but Aksyonov, as usual, was surrounded by a small swarm of friends and well-wishers. I didn’t attempt to approach him this time. I was perfectly satisfied to have had the opportunity to see him there in the hall of the first theater that ever produced one of his plays, Always on Sale (1965). It was a nice little closing of a historical circle for me. I suspect it was also around the time of this visit to the Sovremennik that, as co-editor of the Russian Theater Archive series of books, I had a small hand in publishing Aksyonov’s play Your Murderer in a translation by Daniel Gerould and Jadwiga Kosicka. That, for me was also a meaningful event. Aksyonov had helped me publish my first ever article in Russian way back in the 1980s, and 15 to 20 years later I was able to help him publish one of his neglected plays in English.
I trust you understand that I do not mention these insignificant incidents in order to worm my way into some kind of proximity to Vasily Aksyonov. But it is true that Aksyonov made a deep impression on me as a man of talent, wit, generosity and humanity, and that forever after I continued to harbor for him a genuine affection in my heart. No, what compels me to write today is what Bruce Springsteen called the “ties that bind” – that feeling of warmth and connection that ties to me Russian literature, culture and art. Aksyonov epitomized the best of what I know about Russian literature and Russian literary figures. He is one of those who make me feel at home in this culture, no matter what it chooses to throw at me and mine.



Yury Kazakov plaque, Moscow


I mean nothing evil whatsoever in saying I fear Yury Kazakov (1927-1982) is on the verge of being forgotten. Maybe I’m actually saying something almost good. Maybe I’m saying that Kazakov, who was once one of the most respected Soviet writers (reviled, naturally, by “official critics”), and who remains a standard of excellence for those in the know today, is one of those inconstant beacons that remind us excellence is its own reward, everybody else be damned. Maybe I’m saying that Kazakov, in some odd way, grows in stature all the more as subsequent harried generations lose themselves in the vanity of their affairs.
I was introduced to Kazakov’s work while studying Russian and Russian literature at the University of California at Irvine. He was presented to us with great trepidation, I would say, with great respect, with words of sincere admiration for a writer who based everything he did on quiet subtlety. I remember Bulat Okudzhava talking about him with great respect when he lectured at Irvine in the early 1980s. I also remember Vasily Aksyonov applying the same respect to his work when he conducted seminars I attended during my time at George Washington University a year or two later. Those opinions had a powerful effect on me and they have lasted. Even though I haven’t read a single thing of Kazakov’s since the early 1980s. And, indeed, I never hear anyone talk about him today. Let’s say I just move in the wrong circles. I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s certainly possible. Life is too big for any one of us to embrace fully. We do it badly, incompletely, lacking the proper understanding and perspective. What we’re left with is our own personal perspective, not unimportant by any means, but significantly flawed.
This, perhaps, is why I always have such a warm feeling when I pass by building No. 30 on the Arbat where a plaque was erected in Kazakov’s memory. The future writer moved into one of the communal apartments here with his mother when he was three years old, and he spent the next 34 years here. There’s a nice anonymous text called “The Hidden Light of the Word” in the internet that sheds light in snippets on Kazakov’s life here. It talks about the young boy going to music school holding his sheet music in a folder while standing outside the apartments of Svyatoslav Richter and Nina Dorliak, spellbound by the sounds of them playing the piano (Richter) or singing (Dorliak). During WW2 a bomb fell on the roof of this building and, our anonymous author tells us, Kazakov was one of those who ran up to help put out the fire. He would have been 15ish.
“Yury Pavlovich Kazakov’s literary fate,” this text continues, “seems enigmatic, even improbable. How did it happen that this urban boy, a student, a musician and a four-eyes, suddenly turned into the writer who gave rise to the famous ‘country prose’? Kazakov wrote about the city, too, but it was his stories “At the Way Station” (1954), “Ugly” and “The Traveler” (1956) that put out the new branch of Russian literature in the 20th century. The term ‘country prose’ did not exist yet at the time, but Party critics were already coming down on it hard. These critics saw in the honest description of the Russian countryside – its beauties and its deprivations – a threat to ‘Socialist achievements.'”

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So it was while Kazakov lived in this building that his literary reputation was established. His first book was published in 1959 in Arkhangelsk. In April 1959 Kazakov, in a letter to a friend, quoted one of the phrases from the first review: “In our opinion the appearance of Yu. Kazakov’s book, which crudely distorts our reality and the image of our contemporaries, the builders of Communism, is a mistake of the Arkhangelsk publishers…” Jesus. It sounds like the crap hack critics are writing about Russian playwrights in 2014!
Valery Bondarenko, in a piece written in May of this year, had this to say about Kazakov: “I think the main thing for Kazakov and the people of his generation was a striving for extremes, and, beyond that, a certain enchantment with the possibility, the nearness, of death. ‘Having missed the war,’ it was as though in peace time they wallowed in childish, silly complexes pushed to absurd lengths: ‘A man must know the sweat and salt of labor, he must cut, or at least plant, a tree or catch a fish in order to show people the fruits of his labor – much more real and indispensable than my stories!’ (‘Northern Diary, 1960).”
In my ignorance, having read just a few of Kazakov’s stories (30 years ago!) but remembering well a few well-chosen words of praise, every time I pass by this building on the Arbat I do it with an especial feeling of deference and appreciation.



Novella Matveeva home, Moscow


The first time I heard of Novella Matveeva would have been around 1982 in one of Vasily Aksyonov’s lectures at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where I was doing a Master’s degree. I’d heard about the poets and bards of the 1950s and 1960s – Bulat Okudzhava, Alexander Galich, Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Robert Rozhdestvensky, Bella Akhmadulina and such – but the name of Novella Matveeva had not reached my American ears. Aksyonov spoke of her with great affection and thanks to that I have held her in special esteem ever since. In Moscow I run across her work, and references to it, far more often. She was extremely popular at her peak in the 1960s and remains a highly respected poet to this day. YouTube has numerous videos of her performing her songs. You can listen to “There Lived a Little Boat” for starters if you wish and then search from there. The pictures you see here are not much to speak of, but they show the building at 31 Malaya Gruzinskaya Street, in which Matveeva lived at least in 1976. I photographed the home one day when out on a photo excursion with a copy of the 1976 USSR Writers Union phone and address book in hand. For the record, she no longer lives here, and there is no plaque or other information indicating that this was once her home.


Aside from her importance as a writer, Matveeva, born in 1934, is fascinating for the fact that she has lived most or all of her life in a wheelchair. She completed studies at the Gorky Literary Institute as a correspondent student because she could not attend classes. A tremendous amount of confusion and misunderstanding has arisen around her as a result. You can read that “she never left home,” and that she was “introverted and retiring.” What you cannot find (at least I have not done so even with a fair amount of internet research) is what, exactly, Matveeva’s condition is. This would appear to be a holdover from an age when any kind of physical challenge was not considered a topic for polite conversation or public consumption. What has largely been lost, as a result, is the extraordinary story of a woman who has lived a full, rich, creative life despite the enormous obstacles her society erected for people with physical challenges. Matveeva in her long career has written over 20 books of prose and poetry. She has recorded over a dozen albums of her songs. She wrote music to lyrics by her poet husband Ivan Kiuru (1934-1992). She has won numerous awards, including the prestigious State Prize in Literature (2002) and, according to Russian Wikipedia, she is currently working on Russian translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets.