Click on photos to enlarge.
I made my first post on this blog exactly a year ago. It’s changed quite a bit since then. Maybe it’s even grown some. Maybe it will continue to do that in the future. At first I saw it as an opportunity to post photos I thought would be of interest. But as time went on I began looking more and more for stories behind the photos, some directly connected, some not.
The photos in this particular post might not look like much at first glance. In fact they are quite extraordinary. Not the photos themselves, of course, but what is pictured in, and suggested by, them. This is all that is left of a building in which the Moscow Art Theater actress Angelina Stepanova lived in the late 1920s and early 1930s – a single wall, stripped down to the bricks on one side, still painted yellow on the other. To be honest, I can’t be sure this wall was actually part of the structure where people lived. It might have been a garden wall of some sort. One detail in the two photos above makes me suspect it was part of the building proper – that window, which is still visible from the “inside” of the wall, and the traces you can still see on the “outside” of the wall where it was blocked up at some point. The address of 4 Krivoarbatsky Lane, which is where Stepanova lived, is now occupied, if you will, by a fancy new, faux old building. I’m sure the architect thinks it is beautiful and I suspect the people that paid the architect all that money to build it agree with him or her. I think it looks like a damn doll house. It sticks out like a sore thumb. It screams of arrogance. Faking the elements of old architecture, it screams, “I am new and I am hot!” I really took a disliking to it as I walked around it. It made me love the crumbly old wall all the more. There is a sense of reality in that broken, abandoned wall that the new building will never have.
I should add that Stepanova lived with her husband, the Moscow Art Theater director, Nikolai Gorchakov at this address. They were married in 1924. Before long they would part. That happened in 1933. The reason for the rupture was that Stepanova began a serious affair with the playwright Nikolai Erdman. In her memoirs, edited and published together with her correspondence with Erdman, Stepanova wrote, “The feeling that arose in me for Erdman was so strong that it forced me to divorce my husband.” The two did, however, remain friends for the rest of their lives. Gorchakov worked on several of the Art Theater’s famous productions and he was the author of several books about the Art Theater that retain value even today.
Stepanova’s story of returning home from the theater after performances is worth providing in some detail.
“I performed with Vasily Vasilevich Luzhsky, a splendid actor of the theater’s older generation, in the productions of Tsar Fyodor Iannovich, The Cherry Orchard and The Merchants of Glory. After shows he would return home by carriage and, knowing that I lived on the Arbat, he often gave me a ride. On the way we usually exchanged thoughts about the night’s performance, discussed successful or flawed performances and the public’s reaction. When I would part with him at my Krivoarbatsky Lane, I would thank him and jump down from the cab, and Vasily Vasilyevich, without fail, would say to the cabby, “Oh, oh, Semyon! How much money I have wasted on this actress!!!” Semyon would smile, nod his head, and they would go on further.”
Here is the way Stepanova recalled her home in general (published, like the previous quote, in Nikolai Erdman, Angelina Stepanova, Letters, ed. by Vitaly Vulf, 1995):
“My husband and I lived on Krivoarbatsky Lane. Our home – one large room – was loved by our friends for its warmth and hospitality. Writers, artists and our friends and colleagues from the Art Theater often visited us. We were always able to find something for our guests to snack on, or with which to serve them dinner or supper. Our frequent guests included [Pavel] Markov, [Isaac] Babel, the then-inseparable [Yury] Olesha and [Valentin] Kataev, the artists [Vladimir] Dmitriev and [Pyotr] Vilyams, […] Vladimir Yakovlevich Khenkin, […] Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold and Zinaida Raikh. […] Vladimir Zakharovich Mass spent a great deal of time at our place. He was working with my husband then on a dramatization of the melodrama The Gerard Sisters. Vladimir Zakharovich also introduced us to his friend and co-author Nikolai Robertovich Erdman and his wife Dina Vorontsova. We became friends and in our free time we would go as a group to exhibits, concerts and the theater club. It was fun and interesting. Erdman began coming to visit us often. He would come alone. Then he began coming when I was alone. A romance began which lasted – not much, maybe, but not a little – seven years…”
This wall here – now knocked down to a single story in height, still painted yellow on the north side from some time in the past, and scraped back to the original material on the other – is all that is left of the world Stepanova describes. This wall was there to see Vasily Luzhsky drop Stepanova off after performances in his horse-drawn carriage. It witnessed Babel and Olesha and Meyerhold and Raikh coming to visit. It caught glimpses of Erdman when he began sneaking in and out. It was there to watch Stepanova’s marriage to Gorchakov fall apart. It was there in the early 1930s to see her move to another apartment on Ogaryov Street near Tverskaya Street – an address I have written about elsewhere in this blog.
There is something incredibly moving about this – a fragment of lives lived and lost. Everyone mentioned in this story today – although it seems as though they are very much a part of our lives – is dead. Stepanova, who was born in 1905, died in 2000. Erdman died in 1970. Gorchakov died in 1958. Vorontsova, whose real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Yashke) died in 1942. They’re all gone. Only this wall remains, threatened, but not yet conquered, by the big blue monster that now towers over it. Knowing how these things go, the wall probably will not last much longer. Take a look while you can.