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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.”
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!”
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.