Tag Archives: Vsevolod Vishnevsky

Boris Romashov plaque, Moscow

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A few days ago I wrote about coming upon a building absolutely packed with history, from performances by the young Konstantin Stanislavsky to performances by the Habima Theater. I found that structure while looking for the one I present today – 8/2 Nizhny Kislovsky Lane. This one is the next building over. It, too, has plenty of history in it, although it’s not, perhaps, quite as exciting as its neighbor.
The plaque on the building commemorates that fact that playwright Boris Romashov (1895-1958) lived here from 1934 to his death. Boris Romashov was one of that group called the “first Soviet playwrights” – Mayakovsky, Bill-Belotserkovsky, Selvinsky, Afinogenov, Erdman, Bulgakov, Vishnevsky, Romashov… The list is much bigger, but that’ll do for our purposes here. His most popular plays were probably The Soufflé (1925) and The End of Krivorylsk (1926). Both were satires and both fit right into the fashion of the so-called NEP satires – that is, satires written in the era of the New Economic Policy.  The New Economic Policy, if you’re going to push me for more details, refers to Lenin’s loosening of economic regulations to kickstart the dead Soviet economy after the devastating Civil War. NEP lasted from 1921 until it was abolished by Stalin in 1928. This was the Soviet version of the roaring ‘twenties – hucksters, shysters, wheeler-dealers, dancing girls, money-money-money… It worked and the Soviet economy got going. It also gave rise to numerous popular comedies for the stage. Romashov’s two satires were very much a part of that, although they were already very much a part of the distant past by the time he moved into this home. The mid-20s, by the mid-30s, were a time from another planet. By the time Romashov moved in here, Stalin was clamping down. Erdman and the poet Osip Mandelstam were in exile. Writers like Yevgeny Zamyatin and Ivan Bunin had escaped to Europe, while writers like Andrei Platonov and Mikhail Zoshchenko were running out of places to publish their work. My point is that it was not a funny time. Satire was no longer a good life choice, let alone career choice. As such, Romashov began writing dramas, even epic, heroic dramas. Now that was a way to get on the good side of the folks making decisions and dangling the purse strings. Nobody gives a damn anymore about Romashov’s Fiery Bridge (1929), or Warriors (1933) or The Great Power (1947), but they served him well on the career ladder. They kept him warm and safe in this lovely apartment building in a cozy side street in the center of Moscow, and even helped bring him a Stalin Prize in 1948.
It’s a shame. The Soufflé and The End of Krivorylsk were quite funny and showed a good deal of talent. There’s no telling what kind of writer Romashov might have developed into if only…
But isn’t that the most banal nonsense in the world? “If only, if only.” Things worked out as they did and Boris Romashov ceased writing comedies, and, ergo, plays that anybody would care about in the future.
He was born into a family of actors in St. Petersburg, and grew  up in Kiev where his mother moved to act when his father died at the age of 29. he started his career as an actor himself. Boris wrote that, “from the earliest age I was closely connected to theater, performing various children’s roles in plays, and I dreamed of being an actor.” However, although he did act some in Moscow and Pyatigorsk, he ended up becoming a journalist and theater director, which, I guess, when added together, come out as “playwright.”

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Before Romashov moved in here, one of the apartments was occupied by Anton Chekhov’s widow, Olga Knipper-Chekhova. That was in the 1920s. One of his neighbors while residing here was the playwright Vsevolod Vishnevsky. As such, this building does a decent job of holding up the reputation of this neighborhood as one closely involved in theater. After all, Stanislavsky acted next door, and the famous State Institute of Theater Arts (GITIS) is located just around the corner from here, to say nothing of the Mayakovsky Theater, which was known as the Theater of the Revolution in the 1920s. In fact, it was there in that theater that both  The Soufflé and The End of Krivorylsk were staged.
A few words on Vishnevsky, since he hung out here. I’m usually pretty hard on Vishnevsky. As the biographer of Nikolai Erdman, I can’t help but be. Vishnevsky was one of those who led the attacks on Erdman, eventually leading to the latter’s arrest and exile and the end of his extremely promising career as a playwright. There are a couple of letters exchanged by Vishnevsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold’s wife Zinaida Raikh that can make the hairs stand up on your neck. Written in January 1932, they provide an extraordinary glimpse into behind-the-scenes tug-o-wars going on at the time. Vishnevsky is furious because Meyerhold chose to set aside one of his plays in order to rehearse Erdman’s The Suicide, and he clearly wants satisfaction. “Since when has Erdman, the author of dirty fables and The Suicide become a fresh, bold writer?” Vishnevsky fulminates at Raikh. She, in the letter that prompted Vishnevsky’s outburst, cut the latter to the quick. “You and [Mikhail] Rossovsky are the instigators of the declarations against Erdman,” she writes. “You represent everything that is loathsome in a person, as well as envy of fame! Beware! It’s not the right path. With your battle you will increase the thunder of Erdman’s fame!”
Crash-crash! Boom-boom!
So, when you walk by this building and you think of Romashov and Stanislavsky and GITIS and lots of other greats who had life and business here, Vishnevsky is part of it. Like it or not.

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Writer’s House (Pasternak, Olesha, Ilf & Petrov etc.) on Lavrushinsky, Moscow

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I would call this one of the greatest-kept secrets in Moscow cultural lore. This building, which you have surely seen if you have ever spent time in Moscow (because it is located right across the street from the Tretyakov Gallery and you, of course, have been there), is absolutely chock-full of literary history, real and imagined. This, for example, is the very place to which the slicked-up and scantily-clad Margarita flies and destroys a critic’s living quarters at the end of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. You see, Bulgakov was in line to receive an apartment here in the early 1930s, but was refused. A nit-picking critic who was always yapping at the heels of Bulgakov’s work did receive an apartment here. It pissed Bulgakov off enough that he famously avenged the nasty man through his literature. The only change Bulgakov introduced into the story was that in M&M the building ostensibly stands on the Arbat. In fact, this is it: 17 Lavrushinsky Lane, in the Zamoskvorechye region.
Just look at the list of people who were entered in the list of the winners of the “lottery” to receive apartments a full year before construction on the building was complete in 1937: Boris Pasternak, Ilf and Petrov, Konstantin Paustovsky, Ilya Erenburg, Viktor Shklovsky, Agnia Barto, Vsevolod Vishnevsky, Mikhail Prishvin, Lev Kassil, Nikolai Pogodin. Other luminaries who lived here in later years and decades included Veniamin Kaverin, Valentin Kataev, Yury Olesha, the theater director Anatoly Efros, the singer Lidia Ruslanov and more. In terms of literature and art, this building surely beats out the famed House on the Embankment, located just a mile or two away, for saturation of fame and infamy. I bother to add that second word in large part because of the fact that Vsevolod Vishnevsky, the rabble-rousing playwright, lived here. Vishnevsky was an acid-tongued, often jealous and envious, man who wrapped himself in the cloak of Revolutionary fervor and purity as, behind the scenes, he sent others to their doom. Vishnevsky played no small role in the downfall of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Zinaida Raikh and Nikolai Erdman.
If you know Yury Olesha’s famous last book, No Day Without a Line, you now know where it was written. Here is what Olesha had to say about living here shortly after having moved in: “Constant meetings. The first is Pasternak, who has barely come out his own doors. He’s carrying galoshes. He puts them on after crossing the doorstep, not while still inside. Why? For cleanliness’ sake? Going on about something he says, ‘I talk with you as I would with a brother.’ And then there’s [playwright Vladimir] Bill-Belotserkovsky with his unexpectedly subtle commentaries about Moliere’s long monologues…”
I’ve drawn this quote, as I have much information, from an article on the Writer’s House on the Big City website.

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This building, an article on the Travel2Moscow website tells us, was actually signed off by Joseph Stalin, in large part because Maxim Gorky had convinced him there needed to be not only a home, but a whole neighborhood or small city of writers. Many talk about the distinctive black marble frame of the entrance (see the photo immediately below). It, indeed, is impressive, if not off-putting. And it becomes increasingly so when you think about the reality of the people, the years and the events that converged in this structure. It was built in 1937 and people began moving in precisely as the Great Purges (about which I have often had reason to write, and about which I’m sure I will write more – such is the nature of that beast) were beginning. As such, there were numerous people who were arrested here and sent packing to Siberia, barely having had the opportunity to move in. Could it be that Stalin took Gorky up on the idea of putting a bunch of prominent writers in one place in order to make it easier to spy on them and round them up? I mean, why is the entrance to this building framed in black granite? It looks like a building in permanent mourning. Was Stalin – by way of his architect Ivan Nikolaev – telling the tenants something? ‘Beware all ye, who enter these premises!’ Am I making that up? Maybe. Stalin has been known to do much weirder things. One thing is certain, the building is “within reach” of the Kremlin. Look at the first of the grouping of three photos above. You will see the yellow buildings of the Kremlin rising up there in the distance. The Kremlin is just a hop, skip and trip across the Moscow River away.
Interestingly, the building was erected around an old 17th-century structure that now stands hidden behind the grand facades. You can see that 2-story building in the final photo below.
And now let me, again, turn things over to those who know more than I. This last lovely bit is from the Travel2Moscow site:
“The building’s most famous tenant, Boris Pasternak, wrote a poem that began, ‘The house loomed large like a watchtower…’ Neighbors spread humorous rumors about it, such as the one where Pasternak kept a huge dagger on his wall and could often be seen on the building’s rooftop. Indeed, Pasternak’s apartment was located on the top floor and even had an exit onto the roof. Valentin Kataev wrote that during the war Pasternak (‘at night, without a hat, without a tie, and with shirt collar unbuttoned…’) heroically battled incendiary bombs [launched by the Germans], putting them out with sand. In fact, two of these bombs destroyed five apartments and half of a wing, penetrating five floors into the building. During the bombings Paustovsky’s apartment was damaged. Pasternak himself, unlike many writers, did not leave the building during the war, writing that ‘all the dangers frightened and intoxicated.’ It was precisely in this building that he wrote his famous novel Doctor Zhivago.”
Absolutely fascinating stuff, if you ask me. I have just one question at this point, however. Why in the world would Kataev have considered it odd that Pasternak battled incendiary bombs on the roof of his home “without a hat or tie”? What was he supposed to do, don a tux to greet the German bombs?
I must add here a few words spoken by my wife Oksana after I allowed myself to scoff at bit at Kataev. “The humor is Kataev’s,” she said. “What that means is that Kataev, like everyone else, rarely ever saw Pasternak without a hat or tie.” I.e., the only thing that could induce Pasternak out without a tie were German incendiary bombs. Whatever the case may be, my fascination with this structure and its inhabitants is only going to grow.

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Meyerhold-Raikh apartment, Moscow

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A lot of famous artists have lived in this building at 12 Bryusov Lane in Moscow. But the first two that will always come to mind are Vsevolod Meyerhold and his wife Zinaida Raikh. There are several reasons for that. First, Meyerhold is one of the great figures of Russian culture, period. His achievements as an experimental theater director – even when he wasn’t experimenting he was experimenting with not experimenting – changed theater in the world in the first three decades of the 20th century. Second, Raikh even today, 70 and 80 years later, remains a highly controversial figure in Russian theater history. There are those who would tell you she was a talentless non-actress who became Meyerhold’s leading lady only because he fell madly in love with her almost at first sight and his love never waned. It’s a great love story. It’s a messy piece of theater history. Mind you, I’m not taking sides. How in the hell could I know at this point? I can’t see her on stage. She has been dead since 1939. The extant short video clips, like this one from Meyerhold’s production of The Inspector General, tell us virtually nothing at all. The program in which this video is embedded quotes Meyerhold’s great actor Igor Ilinsky as calling Raikh “helpless” when she first began performing in the theater. (He adds that, over time, “she learned a great deal.”) I don’t know. I can’t know. And actors, God love each and every one of them, often have odd opinions for the oddest of reasons. Meyerhold would probably have said Raikh was a genius. Ilyinsky called her helpless. Who, if we toss aside the sweet and sour instinct to engage in gossip, are we to believe?
But there is another, horrendous, reason why this building is so deeply and closely associated with Meyerhold and Raikh. 12 Bryusov Lane, Apt. 11, was Meyerhold’s home address when he was arrested in Leningrad on June 20, 1939. He would never again see his home. And three weeks later, in one of the most heinous and grisly crimes that representatives of the Soviet State ever carried out, Raikh was murdered right here in their apartment, taking something like 17 thrusts of a knife, or knives, to her body. To be entirely honest, it is still not a proven fact that Raikh’s assassins were sent by someone in authority. But hey. She had stab wounds in her eyes. Frankly, in the context of the time I don’t need any more proof. The Soviet “security organs” were guilty of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of heart-stopping, thought-blocking murders in the long decades of what is known as the Red Terror and the Purges. One knows this as a fact and one knows this as something that did happen 60, 70, 80 years ago and that nothing whatsoever can be done about it now. There is absolutely no point in allowing the emotions to get involved. And yet, for me personally, the murder of Raikh continues to shock and devastate. I cannot read about it, cannot think about it, cannot walk by that simple Constructivist building on Bryusov Lane without shuddering right down to the depths of my soul.

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I came to “know” Zinaida Raikh just a little, just a tiny little bit, when I worked on my dissertation and then my book about Nikolai Erdman. The playwright Erdman was an intimate of the Meyerhold-Raikh family. Meyerhold considered him, along with Mayakovsky, as the dramaturgical future of his theater. That all went up in smoke very quickly, but there was a short period when Erdman and Meyerhold were set to write history time and time again. Raikh, loving those who loved her husband and those who were loved by him, was particularly affectionate with Erdman. I saw that in the letters she wrote him and in the letters she wrote to others, in which she discussed Erdman and his talent. When Erdman was arrested and exiled in 1933 – “fortunate,” as it is commonly said, to be arrested four years before the Purges really cranked up full force – Raikh took it upon herself to keep Erdman in the loop of what was happening in Moscow. She cheered him up, she teased him, she sent him gifts. Erdman was forever after indebted to Raikh and Meyerhold for the attention they paid him when he was in exile in Siberia. Moreover, Raikh was extremely smart and sensitive. She was a powerful advocate for what she believed in and she was a formidable opponent if you did not share her opinion. Two of the most extraordinary letters I have ever read were exchanged by Raikh and the playwright Vsevolod Vishnevsky in 1932. The central focus of their argument was Erdman and his play The Suicide, even when they weren’t mentioning it out loud. But by the end of her long letter, accusing Vishnevsky of trying to destroy both Erdman and Meyerhold, she pulled out the stops. Comparing Vishenvsky to Faddei Bulgarin, a tsarist snitch who harrassed Alexander Pushkin, Raikh unloads on Vishnevsky: “What speaks in you is everything that is disgusting in a person, as well as jealousy of fame! Take heed, it’s not a true path. You and your battle will amplify the thunder of Erdman’s fame.”
Seven and a half years later, Raikh would be dead, murdered in her apartment. Eight years later Meyerhold would be dead, murdered in the basement of the Lubyanka.
For some reason the building at 12 Bryusov Lane bears  witness only to the fact that Meyerhold lived here from 1928 to 1939. There are two plaques, one indicating that the Meyerhold Museum now occupies the couple’s former home. Neither mention Raikh. Maybe that’s an oversight. Maybe it’s a silent reference to the fact that some still don’t know whether or not to consider Raikh a serious actress. If so, that’s pretty silly. History is a place that allows us to find room for all the points of view that once existed. I’m willing to trust Meyerhold on this one; if he made Raikh his leading lady on stage, then she deserved it. I’d like to see her name commemorated on the walls of this apartment house where she gave her life for her love, her art and her principles.

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