Tag Archives: Vitaly Melnikov

Vasily Zhukovsky bust, Tula

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Vasily Zhukovsky is the guy who came before Alexander Pushkin. Talk about getting thrown into the shadows. If you’re a baseball fan, call him the Wally Pipp of Russian literature. Or, if American music is your thing, call him the guy who set the stage for Bob Dylan. These are all silly comparisons, of course, intended solely to get a grin or a groan, either of which is fine. The fact of the matter is that Zhukovsky was the greatest Russian poet for awhile, until Pushkin came along… He had only recently surpassed the previous “great Russian poet” Gavriil Derzhavin, thus taking over that coveted place. Of course, there wasn’t much in it at that time. The stakes were raised, a tradition was solidified, a national literary heritage was established once Pushkin came on the scene. The writers who preceded him were stepping stones, of a sort. Still, having said all that, Zhukovsky was, and remains, one of the great Russian writers. He had every right to wear the laurels of “the greatest” in his time. Listen to this lead-in to an article in a Tula online encyclopedia: “Vasily Andreevich Zhukovsky went down in the history of Russian literature as a poet, prose writer, journalist, publisher, editor, critic, artist and educator.” I’ll bet he did windows, too.
Zhukovsky was born in the village of Mishenskoe in the Tula region on January 29, 1783. He was the illegitimate son of a provincial landowner (Afanasy Bunin) and a Turkish slave houseworker (Salha – I don’t find her true last name, although she apparently told her son she was from a family of pashas from the Silistra region of Turkey. When forcefully christened, she was given the name of Yelizaveta Dementyevna Turchaninova). Zhukovsky’s last name and patronymic were “lent” him by a neighbor friend. Despite the uncomfortable circumstances of his birth, his father’s wife (and other family members) welcomed him into the family. He was given a good education in Tula and, later, from the age of 14, in Moscow. While still in Tula, he attended school while living with his aunt, who often organized literary and artistic salons, thus awakening in the boy his earliest interest in the arts. In 1817 he was appointed to teach language and literature to the children of the Russian royal family. He was tutor to Alexander II. He continued to work in this capacity until 1841, at which time he moved to Germany where he married the 18 year-old daughter of one of his friends and sired a son and a daughter. He  died April 12, 1852, in Baden Baden.
Zhukovsky’s first published poem was “With Thoughts at a Tomb” in 1797. Throughout his early years as a student in Moscow, he published many other poems, most of them exhibiting the popular youthful sentiment of melancholy. After completing his education at the Moscow University Pansion, the future poet returned to the village of his birth for a full six years (1802-1808). Here he did not publish much, but clearly used his time to work on his craft. As noted in a Tula website, he wrote a letter to his friend Alexander Turgenev at this time, relating that he was continuing a program of self-education, studying world and Russian history, while also acquiring other “serious and weighty” knowledge. During this time he translated and adapted several works from European languages, and tried his hand at prose, also adapting the works of others, including Mikhail Karamzin’s short story “Poor Liza.” Zhukovsky considered the great Karamzin to be his mentor.

The first half of the second decade saw Zhukovsky fight in the war against Napoleon only to be mustered out when he fell ill with typhus. At this time he experienced an unhappy love affair that was blocked by the mother of his intended. Both young people suffered long and terribly from their failure to unite. Although it came too late to solve his romantic sufferings, Zhukovsky’s place in the world was settled in 1814 when he wrote “Missive to Emperor Alexander.” This work came to the attention of the Empress Maria Fyodorovna (whom, incidentally, my wife Oksana Mysina played in Vitaly Melnikov’s great film Poor, Poor Pavel) and she reportedly declared on the spot that she wanted this poet to come to St. Petersburg. The poet, indeed, picked up and went to the Russian capital, leaving behind his unhappy love, but not before writing her a beautiful, heart-wrenching letter of farewell.
I will never forget that all the happiness I have in life is due to you, that you always offered the best intentions, that all the best in me was bound up in my affection for you, that, in sum, I owe to you the most beautiful act of my heart, which was compelled to sacrifice you… I shall try to be worthy of you in my thoughts and feelings! Everything in life is a tool for the marvelous!
These years – roughly the second decade of the century – were arguably Zhukovsky’s peak as a writer. His value as a translator was enormous, especially when you take into account the fact that his translations of Shakespeare, Schiller, La Fontaine, Goethe, Homer and dozens other major writers, made these works available to the Russian reader for the first time. Consider that Zhukovsky introduced Russia to the world. So good were his translations of classic literature that great numbers of them are still published and read by readers today. It is no wonder that Zhukovsky has always been one of my favorite “characters” in the pantheon of Russian writers.
The bust shown here stands in the courtyard of the former Lugin Palace (now the Leo Tolstoy Pedagogical University in Tula), a place that is connected to many of the great cultural figures in Tula. Sculpted by the prolific Moscow sculptor Alexander Burganov, it was unveiled on February 14, 2014. I’m not often happy with Burganov’s work, but I am pleased that he chose to show Zhukovsky in his youth. The usual depiction of Zhukovskys is as a rather rotund, balding, aging man. This likeness (we can hardly know if it really is a likeness, of course) allows us to see Russian literature in its youth, which is precisely where it was when Zhukovsky came along to help it mature.

 

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Chekhov’s Little “House,” Melikhovo

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This wonderfully funny little structure is ground zero for modern drama. It is the place on Anton Chekhov’s country estate in the village of Melikhovo where the dramatist wrote The Seagull, the first of his four major plays. The plaque on the front wall quotes Chekhov himself from the back of a photo that he sent to his future wife Olga Knipper on May 5, 1999. Chekhov’s original jottings say, “The outbuilding at Melikhovo. My house where The Seagull was written. With good memories to Olga Leonardovna Knipper.” The plaque reprints just the middle phrase.
We can “observe” the last few days of Chekhov’s work on the play by perusing his letters.
On November 14, 1895, he wrote to Dmitry Garin-Vinding, an actor and playwright then based at the Maly Theater in Moscow, “I have almost finished a play. There are about two days of work left. A comedy in four acts. It is called: The Seagull.
In fact, four days later, November 18, he writes to the singer and writer Yelena Shavrova-Yust, “I finished a play. It is called: The Seagull. It didn’t come out so hot. Speaking in general: I’m not much of a playwright.”
Three days hence, on November 21, he wrote to his friend the famed lawyer and literary dabbler Alexander Urusov: “Incidentally, yesterday I finished a new play that bears an avian name: The Seagull. A comedy in four acts. I will be in Moscow in December (the Grand Moscow Hotel) and, should you wish it, I will send you or bring you this play. I would be very, very happy if you would take upon yourself the labor of reading it. This labor will be somewhat eased because the play will be printed* and you will not need to make out my scribbly writing.” The asterisk to “will be printed” leads to Chekhov’s clarification below that the printing will be done “on a Remington.”
It was not until March 15, 1896, that Chekhov officially sent The Seagull to the authorities (the censor) in order to receive permission for his play to be performed on the imperial stages. Here is that formal request in full:

15 March 1896. Melikhovo.
To the Director of the Imperial theaters. 
A Petition
Of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov 

Presenting herewith a play of my composition under the title of The Seagull, in four acts, in two copies, I have the most humble honor of asking that it be submitted to the Theatrical-Literary Committee for permission to present it in the Imperial theaters. 

Anton Chekhov.
15 March 1896.
Lopasnya, Moscow Province.

Such is the modest, yet insistent beginning of a play that would change the way drama in the western world would be written, staged, acted and perceived for well over a century. Actually, for that hefty influence among playwrights let us add the name of Henrik Ibsen, whose plays, most written prior to Chekhov’s major works, were no less groundbreaking. But it has fallen to Chekhov, in part because of the impending partnership with Konstantin Stanislavsky, to be considered the founder of 20th century drama and theater.
The Seagull premiered at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on October 17, 1896. This outing was a fiasco, however, with some members of the audience heaping vocal abuse on the actors, and ending with Chekhov famously skedaddling out of town before anyone could see or talk to him.
The renowned Russian film director Vitaly Melnikov made a wonderful, sensitive film about Chekhov in 2012 that includes numerous references to The Seagull. It’s called The Admirer. The first frames (and later ones too) show Stanislavsky rehearsing the play in the late 1890s, while the whole disaster at the Alexandrinsky is shown in detail later in the film. (In Melnikov’s interpretation a dastardly critic encourages a plant to begin the audience rebellion.) You can watch a decent online version on the Big Cinema site.  The scenes showing the first performance of The Seagull begin at approximately 1:01:00. (Unfortunately, this copy of the film does not include the English subtitles that I created for the director, but it does include the performance of my wife Oksana Mysina as an eccentric and haughty society lady who considers it her right to hound Mr. Chekhov.)
To round out the historical aspect of this post let me add that Stanislavsky’s rendition of The Seagull premiered in Moscow December 17, 1898. This was a production of the Moscow Art Theater, but it was not performed on the stage that the whole world now knows as the Art Theater. Stanislavsky’s homeless troupe performed on the stage of the Hermitage Theater in the Hermitage Garden for the first three years of its existence.

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The outbuilding in Melikhovo consists of just 20 square meters and two rooms, plus a mudroom or entryway. Chekhov kept his doctor’s medicines in this abbreviated front area and on days when he treated the local peasants (always for free), he ran a small red flag up the flag pole in front of the structure. (See photo immediately above.) A miniature widow’s walk, or balcony, was constructed over this part of the house, and it gave a nice three-way view of the surrounding territory. The building is located towards the back (the north end) of the Melikhovo property and is separated from the main house by a large garden, a grove and two lovely walkways. (See one of those in the following block of photos below.) The actual distance between the two houses is not large, but because of the layout of the land the writer’s retreat has a marvelous sense of seclusion to it – especially when the plants and trees are in full bloom.
Only rarely can visitors get inside the outbuilding any more, but I was fortunate a decade ago to spend quite a bit of time in there while making a small documentary film about Chekhov. The main part of the house is split into two narrow rooms. In the first there is just enough room for a large writing table and one chair on either side. In the second there is just enough room for a small single bed that stands along the back wall and runs almost the full length of the room. There is a night table next to the bed and a single functional wooden chair – to help you get your socks off or toss your shirt and pants over the back. Knowing a little about the way writing works, I suspect much of The Seagull was at least imagined, if not jotted down, here while Chekhov napped or rested between writing bouts.
A place like this always makes us answer hard questions. Is it capable of bringing up the ghost of him that made it famous? I won’t lie: the answer for me wavers between yes and no. When I stood before the desk and looked at the blotter and ink well, I didn’t see any letters from The Seagull, or any of the many other works he wrote here, rising into the air as smoke. In the little bedroom the clean white linens did not aid me in believing that I could see Chekhov’s long, hairy legs disappearing beneath them for a nap. But taken as a whole, this is a quite extraordinary little location on the map. The detail that went into the building of it (see the lacy carved wood in many of the photos), the modesty of the place, the comfortably cramped quarters, the presence of Dr. Chekhov’s glass vials still standing on two shelves in the entryway, the sense of isolation and retreat that everything here represents, combined with the richness and the beauty of the nature surrounding it all (even in the “dead” season) all adds up to more than a few tingles running down the spine.
There are a few places in Russia where I love to just stand and stare as my thoughts go where they will. This is one of them.

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