Tag Archives: Vladimir Mayakovsky

Alexander Fadeev plaque, Moscow

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This is one of the gloomiest places in Moscow, I think. I feel the oppression of the surroundings whenever I am here, and I have been here many hundreds, if not thousands of times over the last 28 years. The heavy, stone walls. The pompous columns crammed into space too small to fit and too high to see properly. The messy pipes and sloppy stray wiring and unused decorative grills. The noise and the arrogance of Tverskaya Street… All of these things influence what I feel when I am here. But there’s a lot more to it than that. One building away from here is the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, stolen from Vsevolod Meyerhold before he could build his planned theatre here in the late 1930s, and before he was shot in a Lubyanka basement in 1940. A towering monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky, all bright and  bushy-tailed, stands a few hundred feet from here on Triumphal Square – yes, the poet who shot himself out of despair at the age of 37 in 1930. I’ve written about all these places elsewhere in this space. Go to Meyerhold or Mayakovsky or Lubyanka if you’re interested.
But there is another reason for the morbidity and despondency that overcome me here. Alexander Fadeev lived here at 27 Tverskaya Street from 1948 to 1956. I’ve written about Fadeev a time or two on this blog, so I’ve already laid out the basic facts of this tragic personality’s biography. It goes from the high hopes and praise garnered by an early novel (The Rout, 1927), to a self-inflicted bullet wound that in 1956 killed the man, an alcohol-soaked, bought-and-sold government functionary at the age of 54. Although this precise spot on the map is not where Fadeev did his final deed – that was done at his dacha in Peredelkino – still, as his last address of record it is closely bound up in his ultimate, despairing act of self-destruction suggesting that conscience had not yet abandoned him entirely.
Look at how short a human being’s life is. Consider how little time we have to make our mistakes, take our chances, and reap what we will from that. First major success in 1927. Dead by suicide 1956, 29 years later.
The fact of the matter is that Fadeev supported or led many of the most heinous Soviet policies by which writers and other artists were not only driven out of their professions, but were often arrested, tortured and/or killed. He once called Joseph Stalin “the greatest humanist the world has ever known.” (Interesting fact: Most of today’s leading Russian writers and artists – I know many of them personally – would not be caught dead sharing space with the “humanist” word. It is considered an evil, horrible notion. When we look at the way the notion of “humanist” was mutilated and transmogrified into its precise opposite by folks such as Fadeev, we begin to understand the squeamishness of our contemporaries.) Fadeev stood by as dozens of the greatest Russian artists of his time were persecuted and executed. Occasionally he just stood by silently; sometimes he even helped them out; but there were times he was part of the machine that sent the most talented minds of the time to a bitter end. What did this do to the man? Here is something he said about himself later in his life, drawn from a detailed biography on the So People Will Remember website:
God gave me a soul that is capable of seeing, remembering and feeling good, happiness and life, but since I am constantly distracted by life’s swells and am incapable of controlling myself or putting my will at the service of reason, rather than express to people this life-spirit and good in my own personal life – as elemental and vain as it is – I transform this life-spirit and good into its opposite and, since I am easily offended and I have the conscience of a tax-collector, I am particularly weak when I feel I am guilty of something, and, as a result, I torment myself and I repent and I lose all sense of spiritual equilibrium.”

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Throughout his adult life Fadeev mixed the life of a writer with that of a bureaucrat. He once admitted that he could not imagine life without conflict – it wouldn’t be life otherwise. Even before the publication of his first major novel he played a major role in the creation and running of RAPP, the notorious Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. It was one of the first “cultural” organizations in the early Soviet period that took it upon itself to police and chastise artists who strayed from the Communist Party line. Remaining with RAPP until its dissolution in 1932, he immediately joined the Writers Union and worked his way up the ladder there. That increasingly repressive organization made him one of the most powerful, feared and hated individuals in the Soviet literary world. He was secretary of the Union from 1939 to 1944; the general secretary from 1944 to 1954; and secretary of the board from 1954 to 1956. You will notice that within a year of Stalin’s death (1953) Fadeev was kicked upstairs and that within three months of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous denunciation of Stalinism at the 20th Party Congress in February 1956, Fadeev was dead.
If you like numbers, you will also see that Fadeev moved into the prestigious digs at the apartment building on Tverskaya Street just two years after his most famous novel, the patriotic The Young Guard, was published in 1946.
Fadeev’s suicide note (not published until 1990) was long, angry and despairing. The writer/bureaucrat lashed out at all kinds of enemies, but also revealed his own personal pain and, perhaps, guilt. Dated the day of his death, May 13, 1956, and addressed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, it begins with the following words:
I see no possibility of living on since the art, to which I devoted my life, has been destroyed by the self-assured, ignorant leadership of the party, and now nothing can be done to correct that. The best cadres of literature –  in number so much greater than the Tsar’s strongmen could ever have dreamed – were physically destroyed, or were lost due to the criminal connivance of those in power. The best men of literature died too early; the rest, still of some value, and capable of creating true values, died before reaching the age of 40-50.”
He rants at bureaucrats and other evil people who destroyed lives and art, almost as if he doesn’t realize the brutal irony – that he stood at the head of one of those horrible machines. But then he adds:
Born to make great art in the name of communism, associated with the party, workers and peasants for 16 years, and possessing extraordinary, God-given talent, I was filled with the highest thoughts and feelings which can come into being only due to the life of the people, coupled with the beautiful ideas of communism.” Then there comes that but, that huge, crushing but: “But I was turned into a draft horse. I spent my entire life groaning under the weight of mediocre, unjustifiable and countless bureaucratic affairs that could have been performed by anyone.”
Backing off slightly from his former adoration of Stalin, Fadeev declares that the new people who have come into power are utterly worthless and that “we can expect worse from them than even from the strongman Stalin. He was at least educated – these are ignoramuses.”
Yes, yes, yes. All of that, I say all of that blows in the wind around the building at 27 Tverskaya Street. The place has the look and the temperature of death, ignorance, lies…
And of messy paradoxes… Let me add one more story from an article by Pavel Basinsky in 2015. Just one month before Fadeev shot himself, the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova presented Fadeev with a collection of her poetry and signed it, “To a big writer and a good person.” That may be even more bizarre than any of the contradictions wending through Fadeev’s biography. After all, Fadeev was one of the leaders of the so-called Zhdanovism attacks on writers in 1946. He personally called Akhmatova out as a “vulgarity of Soviet literature.” In 1939, doing his bureaucratic duty, he personally banned the publication of some of her poetry. Meanwhile, as a bureaucrat, he helped her find an apartment when she needed one and he even nominated her for a Stalin Prize in 1940.
Go figure. But I come back to what I say. The air around 27 Tverskaya Street is as rotten as it is anywhere in this city.

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Grisha Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret No. 2, Moscow

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One could write a book about this building. In fact, I used to own a small book about it in one of those libraries I collected along my way before jettisoning as I moved on in life. The way some people are with umbrellas, sunglasses, gloves and the like, I am with libraries. They come of their own, but when I go, they go. Be that as it may, I don’t need any book to write about his distinctive building at 10 Bolshoi Gnezdikovsky Lane in the center of Moscow. My memories are full without books.
Still, let me begin with some acquired information because this really is an extraordinary location. Two plaques hanging on the exterior wall are of interest to us here. One (the first above) reads as such: “Memorial of history and culture. This is the first ‘skyscraper’ in the capital, engineered by E[rnst] K. Nirnzee in 1912. Beginning in 1915 Nikita Baliev’s the Bat Cabaret began working in the basement, as did the Romen Gypsy Theater and the F[yodor] Kaverin Theater-Studio and others. A winter film pavilion of the V. Vengerov and V[ladimir] Gardin Film Partnership was located on the roof of the building. This building is associated with the names of M. Bulgakov, K. Paustovsky, Yu. Burliuk, V. Mayakovsky and others.”
(The reference to “Yu. Burlyuk” appears to be an error. The avant-garde poet, painter and all-around artistic hooligan David Burliuk was a close associate of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s, while his brothers Vladimir and Nikolai were of some note, too. I suspect it is David that is meant here. I don’t know of a “Yu. Burliuk.”)
The second plaque is significantly more economical in terms of facts, but it tells a similar story: “Apartment House 1912-1923. Engineer E.K. Nirnzee. This building is associated with the history of the development of Russian theater and film.”
This is all very impressive, and I am sure there are plenty of facts and stories out there waiting to be tracked down and retold about all those mentioned here. But I only have room in my mind today for one person and his work and vision. He is not mentioned on either of the plaques from the past, and who knows what eras overseen by what kind of people we have yet to go through in the future? Does anyone today care about Grigory Gurvich? Obviously, many do. He touched the lives of thousands. But does anyone in a position of power and authority remember him? That’s a harder question to answer. Who knows what folks like that are thinking these days.
Grigory Gurvich (1957-1999) was utterly unlike anyone else. He came into prominence during the hard, harsh, ugly era of the death of the Soviet experiment, and he greeted it with humor, style and elegance. It was not a particularly friendly time, but Grisha – as I will allow myself to call him – was everybody’s friend. He had a smile, a good word, a handshake or a twinkle in his eye for everyone who ever came through the doors of his theater located in this building. The idea for his theater was a small stroke of genius. It was not so much a resurrection of the famed Bat Cabaret opened here on the same stage by Nikita Baliev in 1915, as it was an attempt to do that famous enterprise honor in a new age. It was better than a resurrection. It was a whole new theater, with a new idea and a new plan, but one that took inspiration from Baliev and his company which, soon enough, disbanded and headed for world-famous tours of Europe and then a fairly long residency in New York under the name of La Chauve-Souris. (I should mention that Baliev’s name became Balieff in the transition from the Soviet Union to Europe and the States.) Baliev’s theater was a true cabaret, with actors coming in late nights after performing in the “legit theater” to sing songs and improvise skits with other famous actors, who mingled with the performers from Baliev’s troupe. Opening its doors late at night, when actors and audiences got out of other performances, it would run into the wee hours of the morn.

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Grisha Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret Theater (note the addition of “theater”) was an actual theater company. It put on plays and performed them in a repertory schedule like most other Russian theaters might do. What distinguished Gurvich’s work (he wrote or, at least, compiled most of the plays he directed) from other theaters was that each piece was put together from the kinds of skits you might see in a cabaret variety show. But he tied them together, put them into a connected, winding string that created a narrative story. His first show, which opened right here on May 26, 1989, on the basement stage at what has been known over the decades as the GITIS student theater, was called The Reading of a New Play. It was a mystification of sorts that mixed the characters of Baliev’s troupe on the verge of breaking up, with the individuals of Gurvich’s company, which was on the verge of a great beginning. It was nostalgic, sweet, painful, intelligent and always funny. Gurvich, as was his wont, moved through the piece as a narrator or an emcee, tying loose ends together, or, sometimes just leaving them to hang and dangle. The first performances of The Reading of a New Play were wildly successful, as few things can be wildly successful in our days. News of the fabulous new show and theater traveled like wildfire. The next night (when I attended) there may have been two people crashing the door for every seat in the house. The audience was electrified. It exploded into fiery bursts of laughter and applause constantly throughout the evening.
Originally, Gurvich had rented the space for six performances. But because this was right where Baliev’s Bat Cabaret had performed, he very much wanted to stay right here. And the success of that first short run did guarantee a residency that lasted for nearly half a decade. As a resident company in this space, Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret Theater opened its next four shows here, including: I Tap Dance about Moscow (at the turn of 1991/92)and 100 Years of Cabaret (November 1994). It was the latter show that caused me to write a few paragraphs that I have treasured throughout the decades. 100 Years of Cabaret was not Gurvich’s best show. It was slicker than the deeper, more successful first outings. But it lacked none of the excitement, energy and humor that Gurvich always put into everything he did. So, in a review for The Moscow Times that acknowledged a few flat spots and sour notes throughout evening, here is how I wrapped up what I had witnessed:
But Gurvich has the ultimate trump card up his sleeve: his own personality.
Call him the sultan of suave, the wizard of wit, or the king of charisma, but when he takes the stage to the slinky accompaniment of Roman Berchenko at the piano, he soothes everything over. He isn’t just the show’s author, he is its heart and soul.
Meanwhile, amidst the uneven collection of sketches, some are as good as ever. The best include a wildly energetic medley of American pop from Elvis Presley to Chubby Checker; some thunderous, top-flight tap-dancing; and a beautifully-done interactive film skit that has actors climbing onto and off of the screen a la Federico Fellini or Woody Allen.
But the star is Gurvich. Were there such a thing, he would be Mr. Moscow, the man who brings warmth and respect to the town he loves. And a few slips notwithstanding, it is always a pleasure to watch him do it.”
Pleasure, hell. It was an honor. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. It all ended much too fast. After Gurvich directed five shows in the wonderful old space of the basement stage at 10 Bolshoi Gnizdikovsky Lane, the landlords at the theater – GITIS – kicked Gurvich out. He had become too big a star and, for some reason, they couldn’t handle the competition. Grisha took his company elsewhere; they performed on rented stages around town, but it was never the same. Then around 1996 he became the host of a hit TV show called This Old Apartment. That took most of the air out of what was left of the Bat Cabaret Theater. Moreover, what most of us did not know was that Grisha Gurvich was deathly ill. He died of leukemia in Israel before the century could run out.
One very visible trace of Grigory Gurvich’s short tenure in this famed building remains for us to see. That is the art nouveau front door and awning that Gurivch had put in before he was asked to vacate the premises. It was his little gift to history – a door erected in the 1990s to honor an era gone by, the last few years before the Russian Revolution. Had Baliev put in a fancy front door to his Bat Cabaret, it might well have looked something like this door that Gurvich had designed and built 80 years later.
These days, frankly, it looks forlorn and out of place. Without the crowds storming the door to get in for the night’s performance, without Gurvich there to greet you, without any rhyme or reason for its being there, the beautiful, well-illuminated entrance strikes one now as a heavy reproach. It seems to frown on those fools who kicked Gurvich out of here 20 years ago. It seems to mock those who walk past or even enter the premises now – as if to say, “Who are you and what are you doing here? You have no idea what my purpose was!” For me personally, it stands as a small cluster of light amidst the darkness that has descended on Bolshoi Gnezdikovsky Lane ever since Grisha Gurvich last left it. Every time I pass it by it seems to say, “Grisha was here and you and I remember that. Can’t speak for the rest of the folk around here.”

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Nikolai Okhlopkov plaque, Moscow

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I have tried to photograph the Okhlopkov plaque and the Mayakovsky Theatre several times. I have never liked what I got, now matter what the time of day, no matter what the season. The plaque is an awkward one to get, right there on the corner of Maly Kislovsky Lane and Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. There are a bunch of street signs in the way, traffic is always humming, people parking where they shouldn’t be, narrow sidewalks leaving no space, electrical wires making a mess of sight angles from a distance, the light and shadows playing nasty tricks.
Or maybe this place is just jinxed. One of the times I was photographing here, I noticed somebody shooting me. When he dropped his camera from his face I recognized my friend, the playwright and journalist Mikhail Kaluzhsky. We exchanged pleasantries and went our own ways. Later that day he posted a photo of me on Facebook that made my usually steely nerves begin wobbling like water. Until then I hadn’t known that the beer belly of a person taking a photo increases three times in size – even if you don’t drink beer. Jinxed, jinxed, the place is jinxed!
Consider this: Vsevolod Meyerhold took this theater over in 1922 when it was called the Theater of the Revolution, but was gone by 1924, when he moved on to create his own Meyerhold Theater. It was actually here that Meyherhold first expected to stage Nikolai Erdman’s The Warrant, but when he bolted and went out on his own, he took Erdman’s play with him (it eventually premiered in 1925). The theater was run by Alexei Popov from 1931 to 1942. When Nikolai Okhlopkov (1900-1967) took it over it was renamed the Moscow Drama Theater and the year after Stalin died, that is, in 1954, it was renamed the Vladimir Mayakovsky Theater. Okhlopkov remained in charge of the playhouse until it killed him in 1967. Okay, so I’m pushing the jinx thing.
Okhlopkov had been an actor in Meyerhold’s theater, so there was a certain justification in his being named to take over the Revolution Theater. Moreover, during the time that Erdman’s The Warrant was performing as one of Meyerhold’s most popular productions, and as Erdman was sitting down to write his next play for Meyerhold (it would be The Suicide), Okhlopkov undertook to make a film of Erdman’s filmscript Mitya. This was in 1926. But that is hardly the end of the connections. As Anna Kovalova writes in the excellent introduction to her anthology of Erdman’s film scripts (Nikolai Erdman/Film Scripts), in 1925 “it was expected that V.E. Meyerhold would direct [Mitya], and Mitya would be played by Erdman himself. Later, N.P. Okhlopkov was assigned to direct, and he ended up playing the lead role…”
Okhlopkov, seemingly out of his league, had a hell of time making Mitya, and he begged Erdman to come south where the shooting was taking place to lend a helping hand. Erdman did travel down as soon as he could, but the problems remained. Again quoting from Kovalova’s essay: “The press noted that the creators of the film got carried away with models of American lyrical comedies in which the main hero, usually someone of uncertain means, constantly becomes the victim of curious circumstances.” Many years later the film director Sergei Yutkevich wrote about the innovative nature of Mitya in his memoirs, but by that time not only was the film long forgotten, it could never be seen again. The only copies had been destroyed. These days we only have the screenplay to judge it by. I found an incomplete copy of it when I was trawling the archives in the late 1980s, but Kovalova came up with the whole thing and published it in her book. It’s hilarious, touching, subtle and – as everything Erdman ever wrote – incredibly well-suited to performance.

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Why do I linger on this obscure, early episode in Okhlopkov’s life, you ask? Well, here’s why. Because when Stalin died in 1953 and the so-called Thaw got underway a couple of years later, Okhlopkov did what appeared to be a wonderful thing. He reached out to Erdman and offered to stage The Suicide, banned since 1932, and the main cause of Erdman’s arrest and exile in 1933. He payed Erdman an advance and asked for the play script. This was an extraordinary move on the part of Okhlopkov. It would mean the rehabilitation of one of the Soviet Union’s greatest playwrights (Erdman had abandoned writing for the theater, focusing exclusively on writing his own screenplays or doctoring those of others). But it was not meant to be. Okhlopkov, having re-read the play, got cold feet. A few other famous “friends” of Erdman also put in their two-bits that the play was “not right for the times,” that it “needed work,” and other such nonsense.
That’s when things took a turn for the bizarre. Rather than just quietly let things drop, Okhlopkov pulled a nasty, petty move. He demanded that Erdman return the advance on the grounds that Erdman “did not deliver the play” they had agreed upon. Erdman, who was an extraordinarily calm, even-keeled man, figuratively hit the roof. Fury turned to farce, though, when Okhlopkov’s Mayakovsky Theater sued Erdman and sent authorities to his apartment on Tverskaya Street to confiscate his furniture until such time as he would pay up. Erdman wrote a scathing letter to the court, but, as far as I know, he lost that battle. Okhlopkov, after figuratively pulling the rug out from under his old friend’s feet, got his money back. What I don’t know for a fact, but what I strongly suspect, is that following this ugly incident Erdman and Okhlopkov never communicated again.
And so, having somewhat clumsily wended my way through this story today, I finally think I have come to understand why my pictures of Okhlopkov’s plaque never come out. I don’t like the guy. He begs Erdman for help in dire times and Erdman comes to his side. Then he goes and sticks a knife in his old friend’s back 30 years later. And that, folks, is why I can’t get any decent photos in these environs. The place isn’t jinxed, but I have no love for it. And, as anybody knows, you can’t do anything of value without love. These photos are the best I’m going to get.

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Literature in the metro, Moscow

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One encounters the tool of literature in the Moscow metro relatively frequently. Even when it’s not used as a club, you come away feeling as though someone is trying really hard to make an impression on you.
I immediately think of two examples of this more benign, latter, approach that I encountered in recent years. I would guess one occurred 4 or 5 years ago – this was on the circle line – the other 3 or 4 years ago, on the light blue, Filyovskaya line.
In the former case, almost every single car traveling the circle line for a month or more was completely wallpapered with children’s poetry and colorful kid-like drawings. Stepping into a car on that line at that time felt like stepping into the hermetic set of a children’s theater show. As one might imagine, there were a lot of poems by Alexander Pushkin and the great fabulist Ivan Krylov, but there were also excerpts of short stories by various writers from Pushkin’s time up to the middle of the 20th century. I couldn’t possibly remember them all, and I don’t think there were any contemporary authors, but the scope of writers included was impressive.
This was actually the second time I had seen the space of the metro turned into a platform for literature. The first incident, maybe a year before that, was when official stickers of mostly patriotic poetry were pasted above the windows and doors of the metro cars – this method proved to be more long-lasting, for we still come upon it today, as can be seen in the photo following immediately below – which I took yesterday. It shows a portrait of the Slavophile essayist and poet Ivan Aksakov next to a phrase he once wrote:
If a hue and cry arises about Russia’s lust for power and lust for expansionism, you should know that some Western European regime is preparing a most conscienceless seizure of someone else’s territory.”
Frankly, as often as I have seen this kind of crude utilitarianism in my 28 years in Moscow, I continue to be astonished when I encounter it. It reaches the kind of low-blow propaganda – rather on the level one hears in the U.S. these days from, say, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin and their ilk – that is so blatant and transparent, that you can’t believe anyone would actually resort to it. For the record, this particular quote is offered up as part of a program called Russia, My History, which is now underway at the Historical Park of the All-National Exhibition of Economic Achievements.
But, back now to that literary campaign I encountered on the Filyovskaya Line.  (Unfortunately, I did not get photos of it or of the kids’ literary paradise on the circle line – I was not yet doing this blog; it didn’t occur to me to photograph them.) This one was extremely short-lived. In fact, I saw it just once, even though I then traveled that line with some regularity. I don’t know if it was just a try-out on a single train, or if it was a larger program that was abandoned quickly, but it was gone virtually as soon as it began. It was also my favorite of them all. You see, the interior of every car in the train I rode was painted deep red, and every free centimeter of space was covered in photographs of Vladimir Mayakovsky. There were all manners of photos of him reciting poetry, making drawings, talking to friends, reading books, sitting in chairs, standing at podiums. You name it, it was there. I, Nikolai Erdman’s biographer, was especially gratified when I noticed right before my face, a photo of Mayakovsky standing next to Vsevelod Meyerhold and Erdman. Other photos had him with other greats – Boris Pasternak, Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Eisenstein – and it was then, even then, right there in that metro car, that I began to wonder seriously about this curious exhibit. If you think about it, every individual I mention here was, to one extent or another, at serious odds with the Soviet cause – at least at some point in their lives. Meyerhold was executed. Erdman and Pasternak’s literary output was seriously curtailed. Shostakovich and Eisenstein found themselves doing the bidding of the state against their will. At least to anyone who knew, there was something downright seditious about this whole thing, which, of course, made it especially delicious. What a shame I never saw it again, nor had the opportunity to photograph it…

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Far more common, of course, is the use of art to buck up the patriotism of the lumpen proletariat. The Aksakov quote, appearing as Russia continues to pursue military objectives in Syria and Ukraine, is, perhaps, extreme. But I was not the least surprised to see patriotic, war-themed poems by Mikhail Lermontov suddenly appear in metro cars shortly after Russia went to war with Ukraine. The last photo above and the three following were all taken in June 2014. They show a series of Lermontov’s war poems plastered just above the eye-level of any standing passenger, though banked conveniently to point them toward anyone seated as well. (One photo shows a woman in a red jacket looking at a biographical text about Lermontov affixed next to the door.) The poem pictured in the last photo below reads,

And he said, his eyes a-flashing,
“Men! Isn’t Moscow behind us?
     Then let’s die near Moscow,
As our brothers died!”
And we promised to die
And we kept our oath of honor
     During the Battle of Borodino.

Perhaps my favorite photo is the one immediately above. Click on it to enlarge it and then look it over well. That’s what a subway car in a time of “petty,” “dirty” wars looks like.
Finally, there is the photo I offer at the top. It was taken in May of 2013, before this blog began, although I was apparently beginning to suspect I might one day need photos like this. A whole series of texts bearing patriotically religious messages went up over metro escalators at this time. I remember seeing quotes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Leo Tolstoy, in addition to the one I photographed of Fyodor Dostoevsky proclaiming, “Christianity is the Russian land’s only refuge from all of its evils.”
I don’t recall now if the Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy quotes were as provocative (or as double-edged) as this one, but this clearly made me want to save it for posterity.
There is something of the train wreck in these things. Something lurid, distasteful, obnoxious and impossible to ignore. The problem is that when art is turned into a weapon it can only be a weapon. There is no room then left for art.

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Chekhov, Mayakovsky, Uspensky hotel plaque, Voronezh

Click on photos to enlarge. IMG_5911.jpg2 IMG_5942.jpg2 If you happen lose yourself in your thoughts as you walk down the main drag in Voronezh you might be excused for thinking at a certain moment that you had taken a wrong turn and wound up in some Mediterranean or even Caribbean resort. That would happen as you look up at the three-story building at 42/44 Revolution Prospect (formerly Bolshaya Dvoryanskaya [Grand Nobility] Street). It’s a beautiful, happy structure with lovely, earthy colors, hispanic-looking mosaics, seemingly non-functional towers, and lacy window frames that look like they could be anywhere but in the middle of Russia. This is the former Central Hotel, where, after it was built in the early 1880s, most everybody who was anybody stayed when they were in town. As the plaque on the street-side wall proclaims, the writers Gleb Uspensky, Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Mayakovsky all checked in here at one time or another. I can’t find much about Uspensky’s visit. Even a website devoted to the plaque itself provides no more information that the fact that he “lived here in February 1890.” End of that story, at least for now. Chances are he was here while traveling around the country collecting material for his essays and stories on Russian life. Elsewhere on this blog I write a little about his short stay in a hotel in Tomsk in the summer of 1888. Chekhov showed up with his friend and publisher Alexei Suvorin in tow in February of 1892. They spent five days here while on business in connection with Chekhov’s charity work. Based on letters published in that spectacular, blue, 30-volume collected works that every Russianist owns or wants to own, Chekhov arrived on February 3 and departed on the 7th. He was always active in fighting famines and epidemics. According to Russian Wikipedia, the Famine of Fall 1891 to Summer 1892 involved most of the so-called Black Earth and Central Volga areas of the country. It was kicked off by a bad harvest in the spring of 1891, and it quickly turned into a catastrophe, destroying the local economy and setting off problems with typhus and cholera. This, of course, is where Doctor Chekhov came in. He, along with another doctor-writer Vikenty Veresaev, were instrumental in getting help and medicine to the afflicted. Chekhov’s experience with this famine/epidemic found reflection in his story “The Wife,” published the same year that he was in Voronezh. The first note written by Chekhov on Feb. 3 is to local resident Grigory Lepnev. In it he states he will depart the next day for a trip around the region, but it didn’t happen as soon as the good doctor expected. On Feb. 6, he wrote to Yefgraf Yegorov, a retired officer in the Nizhgorod area, “The same thing happened that happened in Nizhny, which is to say, the governor invited me to dine and I had to speak, and listen to, much about the famine… Voronezh is filled with activity. The battle with the famine here is set much better than in the Nizhgorod region. They aren’t only giving out bread here, but also transportable stoves and coal. There are workshops set up and many cafeterias. Yesterday there was a benefit for famine victims at the theater – the house was full.” Chekhov’s father and paternal grandfather, incidentally, were born in the Voronezh area. They famously were serfs there in the household of Alexander Chertkov, a well-known archaeologist, historian, book collector and publisher. IMG_5901.jpg2 IMG_5907.jpg2 IMG_5913.jpg2 Mayakovsky appeared in Voronezh on the morning of November 22, 1926. Thanks to a detailed description of his visit on the Communa website, we know that nobody met him at the train station and he made his own way to the hotel, where he met with Nina Logofet, a member of the local Black Earth writers group. She, apparently, was in charge of his schedule during his stay. That evening he appeared at a reading at the theater – I don’t know which one specifically. Mayakovsky delivered a talk called “My Discovery of America,” then spent “several hours in the company of his fans.” He did not return to his hotel room until dawn. Thanks to this meeting, the local poets Logofet and Vladimir Korablinov were soon published in Moscow in the literary journal New LEF. Mayakovsky promised them he would publish their work and he kept his promise. On November 25 the first public account of Mayakovsky’s visit appeared in the newspaper Voronezh Commune. It was written by the poet Ivan Belyaev, a huge fan of Mayakovsky’s who recently had come to Voronezh from Estonia. For the record, Belyayev had less than a year to live at this point – he was arrested in the summer of 1927 and sent to prison in Moscow, where he perished. Mayakovsky himself was almost on borrowed time by now – he shot himself on April 30, 1930, in Moscow. That sad deed occurred in a building I have written about elsewhere on this blog site. You can hear Mayakovsky himself read his poetry by going to the very cool openculture website, which has two audio links to Mayakovsky reading his own work, as well as a link to a video of the 1918 film The Lady and the Hooligan, in which you can see Mayakovsky act. In the final photo below you can see an old photograph of the hotel taken, I assume, at around the turn of the century. It looks very much like it does today, aside from the garish advertisements on the street level. I took the photo of the photo in a marvelous basement cafe in the old building. IMG_5904.jpg2 IMG_5909.jpg2 IMG_5916.jpg2

Vladimir Mayakovsky bust and museum, Moscow

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This bust of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is very powerful. It presents the “great Soviet poet” as a most contentious and threatening force. Unveiled in 1993 near the entrance to the Mayakovsky Museum right across the street from the Lubyanka – where many of Mayakovsky’s friends were incarcerated or murdered – this image is one that shouts reproach. Surely it was planned by sculptor Yury Orekhov that Mayakovsky’s gaze would be averted away from the headquarters of the GPU/NKVD/KGB/FSB. Even in 1993, one of the most liberal periods in Russia, I don’t think it would have been tolerated for this gaze to be aimed at the walls of the building where Mayakovsky’s friend, the director Vsevolod Meyerhold, was murdered in 1940.
Of course, Mayakovsky himself did not live to know about Meyerhold’s murder. Experiencing unbearable pressure in both his personal and public lives, Mayakovsky took his own life by gunshot on April 14, 1930.
Well, I’ll be damned. That was 85 years ago today. I didn’t plan on that. It happened on its own.
Mayakovsky, as Boris Pasternak said with such insight, suffered two deaths. One occurred when he left this mortal coil; another, when, in 1935, Joseph Stalin, giving orders to NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov, raised the dead poet to the status of state hero. Mayakovsky could not possibly have been a Stalinist hero. It doesn’t matter that he wrote no small amount of poetry extolling the wonders of the new Soviet state. That was an honest desire on the part of the poet to believe that change, of which he had dreamed, was indeed bringing forth good. The problem was that the rift between the rhetoric and reality of the time was growing too big. The crimes and evil being done in the name of progress were killing people. Indirectly, but no less effectively, they killed Mayakovsky, too.
You see most of that in Orekhov’s bust. You see anger, you see rebellion, you see power and strength and talent and you see, somehow, in this red marble, a terrible vulnerability. I can’t find it specifically. I can’t say, “Look at this picture and look at the eyebrow or the earlobe and you’ll see it.” It’s not there to be picked out and set aside. But it’s there. In this bulk of rock, with its hawk-like gaze, you see loss and failure and deception and the treachery of history weighing it down. Maybe it’s the anger – maybe that’s too much anger for a human to bear. Mabye that’s where the fatal flaw lies. In anger.

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Those of us in Russia again live in an age of animosity and anger. In ways that parallel only the times of Mayakovsky, we have seen the field of culture become a battle ground. That has touched on Mayakovsky’s legacy even in regards to the famous museum that once marked his life and work in this world.
It is interesting to see how changes at the Mayakovsky Museum dovetail with the advancement of history. The first Mayakovsky Museum, a predecessor to the one we now know, was established at a different address in 1937, during the height of the Purges. The current museum was created in 1967-68 in the building where Mayakovsky shot himself. History buffs recognize this as the tail end of The Thaw era. Major reconstructions were undertaken in 1987-89, the height of Perestroika. The museum was closed and its exhibits were partly vandalized in several scandalous moves by the authorities in 2013 – the beginning of the period in which we now live, filled with cultural attacks, raids on places of culture and the plundering of art, past and present, for money and power.
Just as Stalin was necessary to bring Mayakovsky back into the ranks of hero following his suicide (a real no-no for Soviet propaganda’s sake), Leonid Brezhnev was pulled into conflicts that affected the fate of the museum in the 1960s. My point is that Mayakovsky and his legacy continue to act as a kind of litmus test determining which way political and cultural winds are blowing.
As you can see in the photo immediately below, the museum is now abandoned and “under reconstruction.” There is no way of knowing what form the museum will take in the future, just as there is no way of knowing where all the cultural conflict in Russia today is leading us. One can expect that, wherever it leads, it will be reflected in some way in the Mayakovsky Museum. In the final photo below you see the plaque identifying the museum on the inside of the archway that leads to the museum entrance. Beyond it and across the street stands the FSB headquarters at Lubyanka. There is a symbiotic relationship here that feels eternal, whether we like that or not.

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Mosselprom Building, Moscow

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Definitely one of the coolest buildings in Moscow – the Mosselprom building. It hasn’t looked as pretty as this very often over the decades. It was something like this – though not exactly – when the great avant-garde artists Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova teamed up with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to decorate it in the mid-1920s. That was at the height of the NEP period – the New Economic Policy, during which private commerce was again briefly made legal in the young Soviet Union. By 1937, Mosselprom, an organization representing manufacturers and sellers of food, drink and small consumer items, was gone. The decorations and advertisements created by Rodchenko, Stepanova and Mayakovsky lasted a few years more but eventually were removed. From the early 1940s until the late 1990s the building remained a fairly dowdy one, not anything that really grabbed your attention. But in 1997 a decision was made to restore the building to its former, short-lived glory. Thus, on what I’m guessing is the eastern or northeastern-facing wall, we can again see Mayakovsky’s famous slogan, “Nowhere if not at Mosselprom!” You can see that in the second photo above, the small white letters against the narrow dark background ending in a huge red exclamation point.
I don’t know why Mayakovsky’s slogan was so famous. But it was. You almost always meet the word “famous” before the word “slogan” in descriptions of it. Maybe it was because this was a pleasant throwback to former commercial frivolity. Maybe because these were among the first-ever huge advertisements on a building – forerunners to our billboards – so that attracted attention. There is a jaunty rhythm to Mayakovsky’s phrase – nigde, krome kak v Mossel’prome – but I don’t find it anything out of the ordinary. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m too jaded by the mad men of Madison Avenue. Mayakovsky himself was of a very high opinion of his phrase. “Despite the poetic razzes, I consider [the slogan] to be poetry of the very highest qualification.” So, take that, naysayers, myself included.
There may be another reason why it became so famous – Mayakovsky and Rodchenko teamed up to create dozens of advertisements and slogans for Mosselprom in the  second half of the 1920s. You can see a bunch of their advertising posters on Google. One that surely amused Mayakovsky as he wrote it was, “Better pacifiers have never been. I’ll suck them until I’m an old man.” Pardon, as the French say, but the Russian word for “pacifier” is quite simply “nipples.” But the point is that all of these ads were popular and ubiquitous at the time. Their popularity would have rubbed off on the paintings and slogans on the wall of the building.
(By the way, as a non-sequitur, may I ask all those dread bores who complain about Bob Dylan occasionally allowing his music to be used for advertisements to think upon the implications of this post? Thank you.)

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The Mosselprom building bears the address of 2/10 Kalashny Lane. It is located right around the corner from the Russian Academy of Theater Arts on Maly Kislovsky Lane (RATI, formerly GITIS, actually occupies rooms in the Mosselprom building now too), and it is located next to the building on Maly Kislovsky that formerly housed the mighty Iskusstvo, or Art, publishing house. After the building’s glory years, from 1964 until his death in 1969, the great Russian linguist and literary scholar Viktor Vinogradov lived here with his library of 20,000 books. I used his books – the ones he wrote – when studying Russian at an advanced stage.
The building in its current state is rather closer to what Rodchenko intended when he created his designs in the 1920s. He had wanted his artwork to be painted on plaster covering the base construction material of bricks. However, probably in an economizing move, the original builders skipped the plaster and had the words and colors painted directly onto the bricks. The advertisements were painted on plywood boards that were hung on the walls. Today all the painting is done directly on the plaster. And, as Science and Life magazine tells us, the paints now used are a special acrylic that can withstand temperatures as low as -50 C (-58 F).
The basic building was erected in 1913 by architect Nikolai Strukov. It was expanded in 1925 especially for Mosselprom by Artur Loleit. Actually, the building has a checkered history. Parts of it fell down when it was first built and it was restructured several times. One can find all kinds of architects’ names involved in the various stages of the work. But it looks to me like Strukov answers for the basic building, while Loleit answers for what it looked like when it became famous in 1925.

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