Tag Archives: Vladimir Mass

Lubyanka headquarters, Moscow

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What the hell is this doing here? Well, some of Russia’s greatest artists were persecuted here in the basement or other places. Some, maybe many, were tortured or shot here. This building – figuratively and in fact – ended the careers and/or lives of many of Russia’s greatest, most talented citizens.
The structure was built in 1898 to house the All-Russia Insurance Company. Following the Revolution it was taken over by the state and given to the first of many organizations whose business it has been ever since to spy and meddle in people’s lives at home in Russia and abroad. (Let’s not get too righteous about this stuff – the U.S. has the CIA and the FBI to do similar things in and for the States.) As for the organization that has occupied the building at Lubyanka Square since 1918, the acronyms have been many: the CHeKa, the GPU, the OGPU, the NKVD, the KGB and now, in modern times, the FSB. A rose by any other name… All of them have been one version or another of what is often called the secret police.
Those passing through the doors of this establishment not by their own choice make an astonishing list – Vsevolod Meyerhold, Isaac Babel, Nikolai Erdman, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Zinovyev, to name just a very few. This is the place where the so-called Night of the Murdered Poets took place August 12, 1952. Thirteen Jews that night were shot in the basement, several of them writers or translators – David Hofstein, Leib Kvitko, David Bergelson, Leon Talmy and Chaika Ostrovskaya. The others included a journalist, a historian, a lawyer, and an editor. One, Benjamin Zuskin, a theater director and actor, had been a longtime partner of the great actor Solomon Mikhoels at the Moscow State Jewish Theater. Mikhoels was murdered in 1948 by the organization occupying this building, although they did him the favor of killing him on a roadside near Minsk rather than in a grungy basement.
For years it has been the rule to say that Meyerhold was shot here one night then dumped in an unmarked grave. Recently, however, I have seen information suggesting it was even worse than that. There is a version out there now, claiming origin from official archives, that Meyerhold was tortured before death by having all his fingers broken one by one, and then killed by drowning in sewage. Sound far fetched? I wouldn’t discount it. One of the sources publishing that version is a site called So They’ll Remember.
According to Patrick M. O’Neal’s book Great World Writers: Twentieth Century, Solzhenitsyn was beaten here before being sentenced to eight years of hard labor.
I don’t usually quote at length from English-language Wikipedia articles, because you can access them yourself  if you’re interested. But this account about Babel’s arrest on May 15, 1939 by Babel’s common-law wife Antonina Pirozhkova is worth a longer look here. It is quoted from Pirozhkova’s memoir, At His Side (1996). Arresting agents arrived at their Moscow apartment and she actually led them to him at their dacha, where the writer was taken into custody. Pirozhkova picks up the story:
In the car, one of the men sat in back with Babel and me while the other one sat in front with the driver. ‘The worst part of this is that my mother won’t be getting my letters’, and then he was silent for a long time. I could not say a single word. Babel asked the secret policeman sitting next to him, ‘So I guess you don’t get too much sleep, do you?’ And he even laughed. As we approached Moscow, I said to Babel, ‘I’ll be waiting for you, it will be as if you’ve gone to Odessa… only there won’t be any letters….’ He answered, ‘I ask you to see that the child not be made miserable.’ … At this point, the man sitting beside Babel said to me, ‘We have no claims whatsoever against you.’ We drove to the Lubyanka Prison and through the gates. The car stopped before the massive, closed door where two sentries stood guard. Babel kissed me hard and said, ‘Someday we’ll see each other…’ And without looking back, he got out of the car and went through that door.”

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It was here during an interrogation that Nikolai Erdman made one of my favorite comments. He and his friend and co-author Vladimir Mass were accused of writing anti-Soviet fables. Said Erdman in his signed “confession,” dated October 15, 1933: “…Finally, I recognized and recognize that I am responsible also for fables of an anti-Soviet character, which I myself (or in tandem with Mass) did not write, but which were an imitation of that genre which Mass and I created together.”
Read that a couple of times and let it sink in. Erdman “admits” he did not write the fables he’s been arrested for – they are merely imitations. However, they are imitations of a genre that he and his friend Vladimir Mass created. So he didn’t write the fables, he just created the genre in which the fables were not written.
Now, Nikolai Erdman was an absolute master of the comic paradox. I don’t care how frightened he was that night – even if he wasn’t laughing inwardly as the ignorant interrogator wrote down that sentence and handed it to Erdman for a signature, he definitely appreciated the nonsense he just helped to turn into an official document. I quote this archival document from the book Give Me Back Freedom!, compiled and edited from holdings in the Lubyanka archive by Vladimir Kolyazin.
Allow me one short personal note. One day I was walking through a rainy Moscow. I began my trek at the Library of Foreign Literature in the Taganka area and I was headed for a downtown theater, I’ve forgotten which one. I had lots of time and so, instead of taking the metro as I would usually do, I walked the entire way. As I say it was raining and at times the rain came down hard, with wind kicking up in strong gusts. This happened again as I neared the center of the city. I put my umbrella in front of me as if it were a shield, put my head down and just plowed on, looking at my feet as they took one step forward at a time – left/right, left/right. I saw nothing around me and I did not know where I was specifically. Suddenly I began to feel uncomfortable. I could swear my right shoulder and the outside surface of my right forearm began burning. They were downright hot. I even rubbed my upper right arm with my left hand to try to relieve the unpleasant sensation. The burning lasted for several long seconds and finally it was enough to make me stop and look around. I could not figure out what was happening. When I pulled the umbrella up and looked, I saw I was standing right next to that grim, gray wall that you see in all but one of the photos posted here today. I was a little over mid-way through (imagining I was walking right to left in these photos) probably just past the high, two-story main entrance. I was stunned when I saw where I was.  And I immediately believed I was sensing the residual fear, anger, despair and horror of all those who had ever been tortured and murdered in the basement of this building over decades of time. I am not a great mystic, but to this day I have never doubted that conclusion. This is a building whose walls have seen untold and untellable horrors. That horror is imbedded in the bricks and stones of this former insurance company headquarters. I have felt it on my own skin.

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Remains of Angelina Stepanova home, Moscow

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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.

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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.

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Vasily Lebedev-Kumach plaque, Moscow

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We continue our stroll up and down Moscow’s renovated Pyatnitskaya Street today by turning our attention to Vasily Lebedev (1898-1949), a poet and song lyricist who, during the period of the Revolution, added the appendage Kumach (calico red, turkey red) to his last name. He was born  at No. 6 Pyatnitskaya Street and lived here more or less until his 12th birthday. Lebedev-Kumach is a wonderfully evocative name in Russian, with hinted references to swans and turkeys, white and red. I used to run across his name often when researching my book Silence’s Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman. Not only did the two writers begin their careers at approximately the same time (Lebedev-Kumach preceding Erdman by about two years) and in the same general circles, but they had the opportunity to collaborate several times in the 1930s. Lebedev-Kumach wrote the songs for three works that Erdman collaborated on with others. They were: The Musical Store (1932), a musical/dramatic sketch written with Vladimir Mass for the popular jazz musician Leonid Utyosov; Jolly Fellows (1933/34), a film scripted with Mass and based very loosely on the idea of The Music Store; and Volga-Volga (1938), a film scripted with Mikhail Volpin.
Lebedev-Kumach was a hugely successful figure in the Soviet pantheon. He was the winner of a Stalin Prize (1941) and his songs were wildly popular, bringing him a financial security that could not be dreamed of by the average person in the workers’ paradise. It’s enough to know that he was the author of the words to the once- song “Wide is My Native Land” to understand the scope of the writer’s fame.
I really don’t want to step into the controversy about Lebedev-Kumach’s alleged plagiarism of some of his best-known lyrics. I don’t know enough to do that. Although it is now a part of his biography and can’t be ignored either. I will say this – the songwriter’s popularity was such that he could easily have had enemies who would have been happy to take him down a rung or two. One of his greatest detractors was the novelist and head of the Writers Union Alexander Fadeev (see an earlier blog about him on this site). But Fadeev was a slippery character, having caused untold numbers of writers to suffer pain, humiliation, loss of freedom and even death. Were his claims legitimate? I don’t know. It appears to be a fact that as he aged Lebedev-Kumach became horribly depressed by his wealth, fame and high position in the Soviet hierarchy. According to Russian Wikipedia he was asked late in life to write a poem about Joseph Stalin and he refused. (He had previously written numerous songs about and featuring Stalin.) I’m not sure Fadeev would have been able to refuse something like that…

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The building in which the future poet and song lyricist was born is one of the oldest buildings on Pyatnitskaya Street. In the second half of the 19th century it either replaced a one-story building that was built in 1842, or had a second floor added. As best as I can understand, the one-story version was erected at the end of the 18th century and replaced structures that were part of the property of Count Mikhail Dashkov in the 17th century.
One website devoted to Moscow’s neighborhoods has this to say about Pyatnitskaya: “Eclectic and gaudy, Pyatnitskaya still retains that charm of a secluded, isolated corner of the city which is characteristic of the Zamoskvorechye region. It’s as if it was created especially for knowledgeable connoisseurs of architecture and hosts of old buildings that are steeped in urban legends and attract curious researchers hoping that the city will reveal something of its past to them.”
As for Lebedev-Kumach, I would add that he translated Horatio into Russian; worked for a time in the organization connected with the famous ROSTA Windows (where Vladimir Mayakovsky also worked); wrote for the great humorous publications The Whistle (Gudok) and Krokodil; and took part in the famous and influential Blue Blouse traveling theater projects. According to one website, an incomplete listing of his songs numbers more than 150. He is buried in the cemetery at Novodevichy  Monastery.

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Alexander Tvardovsky monument, Moscow

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Yesterday I mentioned that the Soviet poet Alexander Tvardovsky and I both have spoken at the Pushkin House in London, albeit 50 years apart and in different buildings. That got me to thinking that Tvardovsky and I shared visits to another place as well – Nikolai Erdman’s dacha outside of Moscow, not far from the banks of the Red Pakhra River. I was there once, thanks to my friend Anna Mass, daughter of Vladimir Mass, Erdman’s frequent co-author for about a decade from 1924 to 1933. Mass and Erdman, like Tvardovsky himself, both bought land in an area set aside for writers – I believe it was in the late 1950s. Mass put up a beautiful, two-story wooden home, Erdman put up a curious looking structure at street’s end that had a few remnants of the Futuristic style left in its angled corners. Anyway, when Tvardovsky would go on drinking binges, something that was common, he would apparently run up and down the country lane on which the homes stood, knocking on people’s doors, imploring them to drink with him, or asking them for vodka if he had run out. Erdman, who rarely turned down a drink, and who preferred cognac, by all accounts did not suffer messy, noisy drunks. So, according to my information, he would usually send Tvardovsky packing when the latter would come knocking.

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Tvardovsky (1910-1971), who came from good peasant stock, is most famed for his comic epic poem about a simple Soviet soldier, Vasily Tyorkin. He won his second Stalin Prize for this work, which stood him in very good stead for most of the late Soviet period, but which is not, to my knowledge, prominent in many reading lists these days. So, the question arises: Why would this sculpture by Vladimir Surovtsev and Danila Surovtsev have been erected in the center of Moscow, a stone’s throw from Pushkin Square on Strastnoi Boulevard, in 2013? Well, Tvardovsky has still another claim to fame, a very legitimate one. During his second tenure as the editor-in-chief of the influential Novy Mir thick journal from 1958 to 1970, he presided over the publication of a significant number of literary works that helped to define the Thaw era, not the least of which was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962.  The Tvardovsky years at Novy Mir continue to be a high spot in this storied journal’s long history. I don’t want to speculate too much, but when you walk around this statue you can’t help but feel that a sense of humility or even penance is built into the image it presents. If so, then this is a nice reference to Tvardovsky’s conscientious work as an editor who was serious about bringing out honest works that challenged received notions, and official versions, of Soviet history and culture.

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Lyubov Orlova plaque, Moscow

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Lyubov Orlova (1902-1975) was the Soviet cinema star.  Her name was synonymous with Soviet film comedies, musicals and whatever else comes in between. She was enigmatic, beautiful, controlled and, in her on-screen persona, kind, accessible, funny and bubbly, the veritable girl next door. She began her film career late, after having spent more than a decade as a chorus girl, a dancer, a singer and a piano player for silent movies in the cinema. She was 32 when she got her big break starring in the wildly popular Jolly Fellows, sometimes called A Jazz Comedy, because it was a comedy featuring the jazz music of Leonid Utyosov and his big band. Orlova’s second official husband was her first serious film director – Grigory Alexandrov, formerly the premier assistant of the great Sergei Eisenstein, but, afterwards, the top Russian director of film comedies. Together they made a string of hits from the ’30s through the 1940s – Jolly Fellows (1934), Circus (1936), Volga, Volga (1938), The Bright Way (1940), and Spring (1947), after which her career tapered off. Orlova made two films in the 1950s and one each in the 1960s and 1970s. For the record, Jolly Fellows was written expressly for Utyosov by screenwriters Nikolai Erdman and Vladimir Mass. It was a radical expansion of a musical theater piece called The Musical Store, which the duo wrote for the musician and actor in 1932. However, when Alexandrov took on the project of making the film, and when he was smitten by his leading lady, Orlova’s part in the film was raised to that of an equal with Utyosov’s. Indeed, they made, and still make, a marvelous pair. Jolly Fellows continues to run with frequency on Russian television in the second decade of the 21st century, as do most of the other Orlova films mentioned above.

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From 1966 until her death in 1975, Orlova lived in a prestigious new building on Tverskaya Ulitsa, just across from Pushkin Square. As can be seen in the photo immediately above, it is the building that has housed Moscow’s flagship MacDonald’s restaurant since the early 1990s. The address is Bolshaya Bronnaya 29. While living in this building, as well as for a decade or so before, Orlova officially was an actress of the Mossoviet Theater, located about a kilometer north of here, just off of Triumphal Square (about which I previously wrote a little). Orlova did not perform often in the theater, but her two shows at the Mossoviet, Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar and John Patrick’s The Curious Savage, in the 1960s and 1970s respectively, were both extremely popular with audiences. Orlova’s aura as a star never waned even as she worked significantly less. I would go so far as to say that it has not waned even now, 40 years after her death.

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Nikolai Erdman Memorial Plaque, Tomsk

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The appearance in 2011 of a plaque commemorating the fact that the great playwright Nikolai Erdman worked at the Tomsk Drama Theater was one of those little miracles that make life worth living. Erdman, arrested in 1933 during the filming of the great “first Soviet musical” Jolly Fellows, was exiled to Siberia in less than a week’s time. He was sent to Yeniseisk; his co-screenwriter Vladimir Mass on the film was sent to Tobolsk. Although the two had worked together frequently since the mid-20s or so, they would never do so again. Erdman, apparently in gratitude for his good behavior in Yeniseisk, was moved to Tomsk in 1934.  He remained there until his three-year sentence was up in 1936.

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Tomsk has long been one of the biggest, most important Siberian cities. It was a central point for political prisoners and exiles being moved further into Siberia or keeping them from moving back to European Russia. As such, the city has a rich history of political prisoners contributing to the local culture. Erdman during his stay was officially employed at the Tomsk Drama Theater as literary director, and, while he was there, he wrote a dramatization of Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother, which was performed with some success.

DSCN1634.jpg2DSCN1637.jpg2The plaque on the wall of the former Tomsk Drama Theater (now the city’s Young Spectator Theater) was unveiled on a crisp day at the end of March 2011. The event was the culmination of four years of work carried out by Professor Valentina Golovchiner, a Yevgeny Shvarts scholar, who had studied under the most important Erdman scholar of the Soviet era, Nikolai Kiselyov. According to Golovchiner she got the idea of launching the campaign to erect the plaque (designed by great local sculptor Leonty Usov) from me when, one day, without thinking, I blurted out that someone ought to commemorate the fact that Erdman once worked in this building at Pereulok Nakhanovicha, 4. Be that as it may, this is the essence of the matter: Golovchiner showed heroic tenacity in pushing the plaque through all the stages of permissions, bureaucratic hoop-jumping and signature-collecting that were required to bring the project to fruition. As much as it is a truly satisfying recognition of Erdman’s contribution to Russian literature, drama and theater – for me it will also always be a monument to Valentina Golovchiner’s commitment to her calling as a scholar and historian of Russian culture. Following is a 2014 snapshot of Golovchiner pointing to the desk where Kiselyov used to work at the Tomsk State University Library, followed by a portrait of Kiselyov that hangs in a corridor on the second floor of the main university building.

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