Tag Archives: Vsevolod Meyerhold

Alexander Griboedov monument, Moscow

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This is the third or fourth time I have photographed this monument, one of Moscow’s most prominent. I have never been satisfied with the pictures and I’m not crazy about what I have to offer today. But I figured if I haven’t been able to do better than this by now, then I never will.
So, here is the monument to playwright and poet Alexander Griboedov which stands at the far end of the segment of the Moscow Garden Boulevard that is called Chistye Prudy (Clean Ponds). You pass Alexander as you walk from the Chistye Prudy or Turgenevsky metro stops on your way to the actual ponds, the Sovremennik Theater, the Tabakov Theater or many other attractions along the way.
One would think this is a fine monument. It is big, that is for sure. It dominates the area around it. It has a nicely classical feel for those who love that kind of thing. But I have a sneaking suspicion that I have had enormous difficulty photographing it for a reason. I just can’t put my finger on it yet. For one, it seems almost as if the sculptor Apollon Manuilov first checked out the monument to Nikolai Gogol on Gogolevsky Boulevard (erected in 1952 – read about that elsewhere in this space) and the Ground Zero monument in Moscow, Pushkin at Pushkin Square (originally erected in 1880 – read about that, too, in this space), before settling on how he would depict Griboedov. It looks like Griboedov, as far as we can tell at this remove; it is, as I’ve said, big; it’s done with all the reverence one could hope for; it’s location is about as good as they come. But I hardly ever notice it when I pass it by (as I often do, or, at least, used to), I don’t see much when I do look, and when I photograph it I seem to get mush.
The monument was erected in 1959, on the 130th anniversary of Griboedov’s death. It was a nasty and famous death. Griboedov (1795-1829), sent by the Russian government as an ambassador to Persia, never arrived. He was murdered – sliced up so badly that he could only be identified by a mark on his arm – while on the road in what we now know as Teheran, Iran.
There’s a fairly humorous story about the location of the Griboedov monument. In 1918 the young Soviet government chose to erect a monument to the famed anarchist Mikhail Bakunin here. But it was apparently so “avant-garde” that eye-witnesses swore that when it was unveiled all the horses nearby reared and tried to run away. So ugly and unloved was this monument to Bakunin that it was removed, some say in a week, some say in a year. (You can see the Bakunin monument here in the first seven photos. I rather like it.) My understanding is that this location remained empty until the decision was made to erect the monument to Griboedov.

Griboedov’s assassination put an end to a short, brilliant life.  He is usually called a one-play wonder, although that is not entirely true. He wrote several short comic plays for the Russian stage. He wrote a good many poems and he wrote a waltz, the Griboedov waltz in E-minor, that is still performed often today. You hear this piece as accompanying music in all kinds of Russian films and theater pieces. His great work, Woe from Wit, was a satire so biting and so true that its phrases were already being picked up and used in Russian society of the time (the early 1820s) because Griboedov or others would read the latest installments at society gatherings. The number of phrases from this play that entered common usage is enormous. Various folks have come up with various numbers, of course, but I have seen lists that go well over 50.

Call me a carriage! A carriage! is uttered by Chatsky when he has finally had enough. He’s outta here. That might be the English equivalent (which doesn’t mean I suggest translating it that way) – “I’m outta here!”
All calendars lie! uttered by a woman old enough to be certain of what she is saying.
Even the smoke in our Fatherland is sweet and pleasing, says Chatsky after he has just returned and before he becomes disillusioned with his hometown. These days the phrase is usually used with great irony.
Where is it best? Where we are not, is an exchange between Chatsky and his former beloved Sofya.
Evil tongues are more terrible than a pistol, says the dolt Molchalin in a moment of lucidity.
The happy don’t watch the clock, says Sofya.
The houses are new but the prejudices are old, says Chatsky.
And who are the judges?! asks Chatsky when he hears someone has been slandered. This is sort of, but not entirely, like the English “It takes one to know one.” That leads us in a similar direction anyway.
A hero, perhaps, but not of my novel, says Sofya of her former beloved Chatsky.
Am I odd? But who isn’t odd? / Only him who looks like every other fool, says Chatsky bitterly.
Ranks are bestowed by people, and people are prone to err, Chatsky observes pointedly.
Even a phrase like “Everybody lies,” takes its elevation to the level of “winged phrases” thanks to Griboedov and Woe from Wit.

The basic notion of the play is also one that has remained acutely timely ever since – an intelligent young Russian man (Chatsky) returns home to Moscow to find that all his old friends are such ignoramuses and bores that Moscow itself seems hostile to him. It is one of the most perfect Russian plays ever written about deep disillusionment. It was written in impeccable verse and, despite its wicked intent – to put the eternal hurt to high Moscow society – it is uproariously funny. In short, it is one of the great Russian plays. And please note: it was written before Pushkin wrote his great plays, before Gogol began writing plays… It is the first play in the Russian canon that still reads and watches today as if it were written by one of our contemporaries.
Like many great Russian plays it took awhile to work its way past the censor. Shortly after it was completed in 1824, an attempt by students to perform it in St. Petersburg in 1825 was banned. That ban remained in force throughout Russia proper for decades. It was first performed in its entirely in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1827 with the author present. It was revived in 1828 and 1832 in Tiflis (Tbilisi), Georgia, at the Nersisyan Seminary. Censored versions of the play were performed in 1831 in St. Petersburg and Moscow, while an uncensored version was performed in Kiev (far from the capitals)  the same year. Although it was forbidden to be performed in full, truncated productions were mounted in Kharkov, Kazan, Astrakhan, Kaluga, Yaroslavl, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, Odessa and Kronshtadt from 1840 to the mid-1860s.  It was first published – with serious cuts – in 1833 and did not appear in  published form in its entirety until 1861. One of the great productions – perhaps the first great production – was mounted by Vsevolod Meyerhold in Moscow in 1928 under the title of Woe to Wit, which was Griboedov’s first choice.

 

 

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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Pavel Vasilyev plaque, Moscow

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It  seems to be a time of discovering poets for me. A few days ago it was Richard Ter-Pogosian. Now it is another. I was walking through my former city of Moscow yesterday and happened upon a plaque I didn’t know commemorating a poet I’d never heard of – Pavel Vasilyev, who lived in this building at 26 Fourth Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street in 1936 and 1937. Yes, you probably guessed right: that latter date is also the poet’s year of death. The meat grinder year. The year of blood. The year of hatred, lies, villainy and infamy. What will ever be done to wash away the sins of that year? Nothing? Can nothing wash those sins away? And what happens if that is true?
But let’s narrow the conversation a bit; bring it back to this new poet in my life. These days, with our instant access to information, it is not difficult to begin understanding the stature that Vasilyev enjoyed for a brief time in his life. The number of poets, writers and others singing his praises in the late 1920s, early 1930s is more than merely impressive – it is downright imposing. As Valentin Antonov wrote in an eye-opening blog in 2009, you can begin the list with Alexei Tolstoy, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Ryurik Ivlev and Vladimir Soloukhin. Our purposes today will be served by Boris Pasternak, who wrote in 1956 (presumably taking part in Vasilyev’s “rehabilitation,” which occurred that year):
At the beginning of the 1930s Pavel Vasilyev impressed me upon first discovery approximately as had Yesenin and Mayakovsky before him. He was comparable to them, particularly to Yesenin, by his creative expressiveness, the power of his gift and his great, infinite promise, because he lacked the tragic explosiveness, which internally cut short the lives of the latter two, and he commanded a cold composure allowing him to control his turbulent instincts. He possessed that bright, happy and quick imagination, without which great poetry does not exist, the likes of which in such abundance I have never seen again in all the years that have passed since  his death.”
That is no rote, routine recommendation. Pasternak here, in just a few lines, places Vasilyev among (and to some extent, above) the greatest poets of his time.
Wolfgang Kasack, the great German scholar, called Vasilyev’s poetry “antiurban, erotic and associated with the free life of the Cossacks.” Later in his entry in his Dictionary of Russian Literature since 1917, he adds: “Vasilyev’s poetry is characterized by an earthy, graphic power. Fairy-tale elements mingle with Cossack history and a revolutionary present. Strong characters, powerful animals, fierce action and the colorful landscape of the steppes are expressively combined in scenes that create great forward momentum with varied rhythms. Bloody revolutionary events experienced in Vasilyev’s childhood are presented without reference to historical persons or incidents.”
Vasilyev’s stance – and one did have to have a stance in those years; it was virtually impossible to stand and watch tumultuous events pass by – was a confused one. As an 11 year-old schoolboy he wrote a poem dedicated to Vladimir Lenin that was picked up and turned into a song by his teacher and classmates. He seemed to sing the praises of the Revolution at times, while at others he was clearly at odds with its consequences. By the early 1930s he was constantly running into trouble. His fate was probably sealed when Maxim Gorky (yes, that slipperly ol’ Maxim Gorky again) in 1934 accused him of “drunkenness, hooliganism and violating the law on residence registration.”
What the hell? Was Gorky playing the role of the pot calling the kettle black? I don’t know; I’ll have to look into this some day. But here are some of the facts of the end process:
Vasilyev was first arrested in 1932, although was released before long. Gorky jumped on his back in 1934 and, surely consequently, Vasilyev was kicked out of the brand-new Writers Union in January 1935. Six months later he was arrested again, this time for engaging in what, by all accounts, was a nasty, drunken, public fight with a poet known as Jack (Yakov) Altauzen. Judging by the record, Vasilyev’s antisemitic views were well known, and this brawl appears to have been a flare-up of racist behavior. Vasilyev was released early again, in 1936. In February 1937 he was arrested still again for the supposed crime of belonging to a terrorist group whose purpose was to assassinate Joseph Stalin. He was condemned to be shot and the sentence was carried out July 16, 1937, in the Lefortovo prison. Similar to his contemporary, Vsevolod Meyerhold, his remains lie in an unmarked grave in the Donskoi Monastery.

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Pavel Vasilyev (1909-1937) was a restless man. Even with his family as a youth he traveled often from town to town. His father was a teacher and held many different jobs. The poet was born in the town of Zaisan in what is now known as the Republic of Kazakhstan. Other cities figuring in his biography are Pavlodar, Sandyktav Station, Atbasar, Petropavlovsk, Omsk, Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Novosibirsk and Moscow. He spent time as a fisherman and prospector on the Irtysh and Selemidzha rivers. He also worked as a journalist, leading him toward the life of writer and poet. His first published poem was called “October,” and was printed in Vladivostok on Nov. 6, 1926. His poems were soon picked up by many of the top publications in the Soviet Union, including Izvestia, Novy Mir, Literary gazette, Ogonyok and many others. At the same time, much of his work could not be published. For example, in the early 1930s he wrote a series of ten folkloric, historical verse epics, although only one, The Salt Riot (1934), saw the light of day. Either because of his poetry, his personality, or his intolerant world view – or, perhaps, because of all three together – he eventually came upon his downfall. It is accepted knowledge that Vasilyev was the prototype for the main character, an antihero, spy and ruffian named Andrei Abrikosov in Ivan Pyryev’s popular film The Party Ticket (1936). Note that he was portrayed here as a spy a year before he was executed for being a spy…
I don’t know enough about Vasilyev to take sides for or against him in regards to his character or lack thereof. I do, however, see a depressingly familiar case of a talented, unusual person being singled out by the in-crowd and turned into a victim and a scapegoat. The story of Pavel Vasilyev may be messy and paradoxical. But it ends with a gunshot – probably to his head – which gives him certain rights in retrospect.
Here is a poem written in February 1937, presumably after he had been arrested:

Red-breast finches flutter up…
So soon, to my misfortune,
I’ll see the green eye of the wolf
In hostile northern lands.

We shall be heartsick and forlorn,
Though fragrant as wild honey.
Unnoticed, time frames will collapse
As gray enshrouds our curls.

And then I’ll tell you, sweet:
“The days fly by like leaves upon the wind,
It’s good that in a former life
We found each other then lost it all…”

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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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Mikhail Tsaryov plaque, Moscow

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I fully expected some day to pull these photos out in order to share stories I have long heard about the famed actor Mikhail Tsaryov, with whom my wife Oksana Mysina studied acting at the Maly Theater’s Shchepkin Institute. I may still slip in a few of those, but today another, more solemn occasion has caused me to remember Tsaryov: On April 5, 2016, the great Martha Coigney, the 35-year head of the American chapter of the International Theater Institute, died at the age of 82 in New York. As head of the US ITI, one of the most active and valuable worldwide cultural institutions during the Cold War, Martha and her colleagues were the peace keepers and peace makers of their era. They were stubborn in their belief that culture and art can save what politics so often seeks to destroy. It so happened that Martha’s Soviet counterpart was Mikhail Tsaryov, then the head of the Soviet Theatre Union, the USSR’s mirror-like version of ITI in the US. Martha had a soft sport in her heart for Tsaryov, and she shared with me a few of her stories in a video I shot in her apartment in 2010. She began by saying, “How many Russians have I fallen in love with since I worked at the International Theater Institute? It’s probably too many to count. But one of the first ones that I met, and [who] remained a sort of touchstone in a way, was Mikhail Tsaryov” [she pronounces it “Tsarev”].
The two remained colleagues for approximately a period of 15 years, until Tsaryov’s death in 1987, just a week short of his 84th birthday.
He was a very clear Soviet representative,” Martha told me [this transcript is edited very lightly for style and clarity]. “But he was also a wonderful older actor. He was one of the people who showed the power of theater to climb through national differences… He was completely official when needed, but he was an extraordinary friend when he would be talking about theater…. Like Margaret Thatcher said about Gorbachov, ‘We can do business together!’ Even though he was very solid on one side and I was pretty solid on the other, we didn’t let it get in the way of getting the work done, because theater was going to solve everything anyway! 
“He was quite official, and he was not overly forthcoming… but one of the executive committee meetings in Paris coincided with his 80th birthday. So the French woman who was head of ITI and I planned a surprise, and at the break in the morning meeting I said, ‘There is a young person here who has an important birthday and we need to stop and pay attention to it.’ And then we all brought in a tray of champagne glasses and a couple of bottles and Tsaryov burst into tears. It didn’t show too much, but he was completely bouleversé. That’s where his heart… that’s where his identity rested. It was in his affection for theater people and his sentimentality. That’s why he said, ‘theater people know better how to make peace than anyone else.’ 
“The only time I saw him perform was at the last plenary session in New York, which took place the same week as the Six Day War in the Middle East. On the Friday of that week about 60 or 70 of us went over to the United Nations to watch the emergency general assembly, and the next morning Tsaryov got up in the closing session of the congress and said, ‘All week we have been discussing and arguing and deciding about theater in the world, and yesterday we went over to watch the diplomats deal with the Middle East. We watched for an hour or so.’ And he paused, like an old actor, and said, ‘We are the diplomats. We meet at what could be the end of the world. But we make peace. We are the diplomats.’ That got a huge laugh, but it was true. It really was true, and it was one of the things that… I was going to do the conference and mop up afterwards and then I was going to go do some production work. But I never left ITI because of that week. Because it was doing something the world needed. One artist at a time. Tsaryov was certainly one of those.”

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Pretty amazing stuff, actually. Martha Coigney and Mikhail Tsaryov making peace as war rages around them. Sounds eerily and frustratingly familiar.
I just told Oksana that I was writing about Tsaryov and she told me about how the students at the Shchepkin Institute celebrated his 80th birthday in Moscow. On the actual day of his birthday he performed in one of his most popular shows on the Maly Theater affiliate stage (which, incidentally, stands in the courtyard where Oksana and I now live). Oksana’s entire course lined up on a stairwell near the stage entrance where Tsaryov came out after finishing the first act, and the group shouted out “Happy birthday!” Tsaryov, who was utterly surprised, responded with a generic phrase that he often used: “Oh! How are things? Bad?”
You actually have to hear Oksana tell the story live because so much of the humor is in the voice. Tsaryov, a large, classically handsome man, had an incongruously high, thin voice. Oksana does a marvelous imitation of the joyous sound the phrase makes when spoken. In any case, this phrase – “how are things? Bad?” – was something Tsaryov used frequently, at the beginning of classes or when running into a student in a corridor. It was a sign, of course, of his wry sense of humor.
A few days later there was a full-blown celebration of Tsaryov’s 80th with a concert on the main stage of the Maly Theater. Oksana joined her classmates in a circus number as well as in the singing of a song that Russians often (at least in the past) used to sing at celebratory moments. It leads to the phrase, “drink up, drink up, drink up!” And Oksana said that Tsaryov did, indeed, knock back a glass of champagne as they sang. So there we have Mikhail Tsaryov celebrating his birthday with champagne in Paris with Martha Coigney and again in Moscow with Oksana Mysina.
Because of the occasion here, I’m skipping over Tsaryov’s career almost entirely. But it needs be said that it began as he  starred opposite Zinaida Raikh in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s famous 1934  production of Lady With the Camellias. One of the darkest periods of his career was his participation in the hounding of Meyerhold that followed shortly thereafter. He was one of those actors coerced into a signing a public letter condemning the great director. It was a sign of the times: No one was left untouched. When the meat grinders were set in motion, meat was ground – it didn’t matter whose or how.
Subsequently, Tsaryov – like a few other of Meyerhold’s stars – moved to the relative safety of the establishment Maly Theater. He was one of the theater’s greatest stars for decades, eventually becoming the artistic director of the theater, as well as the Chairman of the Soviet Theater Union, which is what put him in touch with Martha Coigney.
The plaque commemorating Tsaryov stands next to the entrance to the apartment building in which he lived in the center of Moscow at 8 Spiridonyevsky Lane, a stone’s throw from the famous Malaya Bronnaya Street, and one block from the famous Patriarch Ponds (where some of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is set.) The plaque reads: “Here lived People’s Artist of the USSR Mikhail Ivanovich Tsaryov.”
(Anyone interested in more about Martha Coigney can read a piece I wrote about her washing dishes with Marilyn Monroe, and another in which I briefly tell about meeting Edward Albee, and others, at her apartment in New York.)

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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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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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