Tag Archives: Yury Lyubimov

Old Actors House, Moscow

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Today another phantom, and almost in the very same place. My last entry was about a place with some small cultural significance that no longer exists on the north side of Pushkin Square. Today I’ll do a bit of reminiscing about a place of genuine cultural importance that once was located on the south side of Pushkin Square. This was the Actors House, or, as the old-timers still refer to it over two decades later, VTO (the All-Russian Theater Organization).
What is it now? Nothing. A big, fat, glorified nothing.
In the past it was really quite something.
With a bit of a stretch we can reach back to 1877 to find its beginnings. That was when the Society for Mutual Aid for Russian Actors was founded. It was followed by several other similar social aid programs for needy actors, but the name Russian Theater Organization (RTO) first appeared in 1894. That was changed to VTO in 1932 and that proud name remained in force until the mid-1980s, when a series of successors bearing various names approximating the “Theater Union of the Soviet Union/Russian Federation” came into being one after the other. And yet, the old-timers still call the building at Tverskaya 16 “VTO” even though this particular address lost connection with theater way back in the 1990s.
Now, what happened to this building is interesting because it is telling of the age. It was one of the first arsons used to wrest valuable property out of the hands of people who weren’t using it to make money by those who were just itching to make money. I said “arson,” didn’t I. Yes, I did. And I meant it. Although I don’t believe I can prove that. You see, like so many murders and hostile takeovers and “sudden fires” that have happened in Moscow and Russia over the last 25 years, nobody ever officially solved the mystery of what happened to the old VTO. Oh, someone somewhere said that a short circuit somewhere started a fire and blah-blah-blah. To which I, and everyone else who knows about these things, say, “Bull.” That’s what they used to fluff it off. Everybody knows perfectly well that the VTO was torched. The firemen got there too late to save the organization, but just in the knick of time to save the building’s structure. The VTO (now called the Actors Union) was hurriedly given digs elsewhere in the city (near the Arbat) and this prime real estate was quickly put in other hands. After a couple of years of backstabbing and infighting, a sparkling new shopping center – with elite offices in the upper floors – opened its doors. In “honor” of the displaced Actors Union, the shopping center was named the Actors Gallery. Or was that mockery? Not sure on that one.
Anyway, it’s nice to see bad folks get their comeuppance now and then. I say that because the economic crisis that pounds silently though heavily at Russia’s doors these days has taken down even the Actors Gallery. When you walk up to the entrances to the short-lived shopping center (the VTO and its successors are around 140 years and counting – the Actors Gallery lasted less than 20 years, I’d guess), you see permanently closed doors and empty windows on the street level.

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Meanwhile, Moscow actors and theater people over 60 years old still speak dreamily about the VTO, its famous restaurant, its tiny old elevators filled to the gills (4 or 5 people tops) with stars, its concerts, its social work, its work in preserving the history of Russian theater and promoting those who worked contemporaneously. It was an astonishing place. I had the great fortune to spend a good deal of time there because an extraordinary woman named Eleonora Matveevna Krasnovskaya sort of took me under her wing. She didn’t do it because she liked me, but because this tiny woman with more energy than four tanks had a habit of taking under her prodigious, angelic wings virtually everyone who ever came within spitting distance of her office on, I believe, the fifth floor. “Well, come on in here!” she’d bark at you. “What do you want now?!” I wanted everything and she was just about up to delivering it all. I needed to contact a Nikolai Erdman scholar in Tomsk? Done. I wanted to get into a sold-out show? Done. I wanted to meet someone who never met with anyone? Done. I wanted advice on what was hot and new? Done. I mean, Eleonora Matveevna, or Nora, or Norochka, as I ended up calling her, was the gate-keeper to Nirvana. She didn’t like everything in Nirvana and she’d tell you so. “John. I got you tickets to thus-and-such a show. Now, I didn’t like it much myself. But everybody’s talking about it. So, you must see it.” Got something else to do that night? Tough. Nora got you tix to the hottest show in town. Nora sent me to the first shows I ever saw directed by Kama Ginkas, Yury Lyubimov, Mark Zakharov, Pyotr Fomenko, Valery Fokin, and virtually everyone else, I guess. She once thought I needed to have a chat with Naum Orlov, a director who had made his fame working in the city of Chelyabinsk, and so when he was in the building one day, she sat me in a chair in the corridor and brought him to me. It was her way of promoting “provincial” talent, which, indeed, was horribly undervalued in the Soviet period. She didn’t like that and she bucked it. She introduced me to the playwright Alexei Kazantsev – another one of those things she just figured I needed to do. She had no hopes, I don’t think, that I could appreciate what she was doing for me, but she was on a mission. If I was thick in the head, that was my problem, not hers. As it happened, I ended up becoming quite close to Kazantsev. I was thrilled when my old friend founded one of the most important theaters at the turn of the millennium – the Playwright and Director Center – and I was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack only a few years later.
I had the special honor on occasion of taking lunch with Nora in the famed VTO restaurant, where for 3 to 5 rubles you could eat as if you were at Maxim in Paris. If I happened to come by before lunch, she’d drag me down there, disgusted at me for some reason, but intent on giving me some culture, dang-blast it, and some food. Look at the photo immediately above – you see the “turret” at the left. The restaurant was in the ground floor in the turret. I can’t walk by without seeing Nora pushing food in front of me, introducing me to people, regaling me with stories and always reminding me why I probably wasn’t worth all this attention. Did I forget to add that her eyes would twinkle when saying things like that? Did I really need to?
When I desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert organized by Grigory Gurvich (he had not yet opened his soon-to-be famous Bat Cabaret Theater), Nora took care of it. When Oksana Mysina and I – not yet married – desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert by Alla Bayanova, a romance-singer who had lived for decades in exile in Bulgaria but had now come home to Moscow, it was Nora who whisked us past the ticket takers.
Oh, yes, on Oksana. Nora once informed me that I was accompanying her out to an event in Melikhovo, the estate where Anton Chekhov lived for much of the 1890s. “You need to see this place,” Nora told me, “maybe it’ll even do you some good.” So I met the hired bus at the appointed time and Nora and I took seats next to each other to the left of the aisle, about 1/3 of the way back behind the driver. I was a bit dreamy that day. I had met Oksana perhaps a month before and I wasn’t thinking about much else at the time. The bus door slammed shut, lurched forward and we were off. I still remember where we were when Nora asked about Oksana – it was on Zemlyanoi Val, just after we had passed the Kursk train station. And Nora, assuming all rights to meddle wherever she so pleased, asked point blank, “So, I hear you’ve taken up with that Mysina girl from the Spartakovskaya Theater. Is that so?” I wasn’t the least taken aback. I hadn’t told Nora about that, but I certainly never would have doubted that she would know whatever there was to know out there. “Yes,” I said, probably a bit cowed. She turned to me and let her eyes burn into me for a second or two and said, “Do you love her?” I looked back at her, surely still cowed, but now less so, and said, “Yes, I do.” She shifted in her seat and looked straight again again. “Good!” she said. “She’s a fine young girl.”
Somewhere in my archive I have a photo of us taken later that day, in Melikhovo. Or maybe I lost it in my last move. What I do know is that I can never lose Eleonora, Nora, Norochka, just as I’ll never lose the sensations I experienced under her wings at the old VTO.
Nora, by the way, just turned 90. Happy birthday Norochka Matveevna!

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Chekhov and Lyubimov at the Vigszinhaz, Budapest, Hungary

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The Vígszínház (pronounced more or less Veeg-seen-hahs) in Budapest is quite an extraordinary theater. The only thing I could compare to it in Moscow is the Bolshoi. But this historically was a “lowly” comedy theater, created in 1896, to counteract the conservatism of the National Theater. So this place was an upstart, a rebel, a renegade. Hardly looks like one by today’s standards. And when you get inside it only gets more opulent. According to the Geocaching website, “The Vígszínház is one of the finest examples of theatre buildings designed by [Ferdinand] Fellner and [Hermann] Helmer, whose 19th century ‘new-standard theatres’ can be found scattered across central Europe.” I attended the Vig, as it is called colloquially, one night last week to see a performance of Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy The Inspector General. I was intrigued to see, when I arrived, a huge banner advertising the theater’s dramatization of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. So the Russian connection at this theater remains strong. You see, it was this very theater that introduced Anton Chekhov to Hungarian audiences. My half-hearted, though sincere, efforts to determine exactly which Chekhov play was produced here and when remain in vain. Numerous websites, including the theater’s own, proudly proclaim that Chekhov was produced here “from the very beginning,” or that the “first Chekhov offered in Hungary was staged here,” but nobody says which of the plays it was. A letter to the theater’s literary department has gone unanswered as of yet. And I used to have a book that listed all of the Chekhov productions around the world in the early years, but that book is not with me in Moscow. So I remain in the dark and I regrettably leave you there too. If anybody knows the first Chekhov play to be performed at the Vig, do inform me, please. I’ll add that information here.

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But, as I say, this playhouse has a long and rich connection to Russian culture that goes far beyond Chekhov. Among others, the Boris Eifman Ballet has played here. But one of the most memorable Russian connections to this day remains Yury Lyubimov’s production of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. This, in fact, was the first of several interpretations Lyubimov would do of this seminal literary work. Although there exists some alternate information, Lyubimov’s own pages on the Taganka Theater site list the premiere of this show as having taken place Jan. 26, 1978. It preceded his famous Moscow production by just over a year (that production opened on Feb. 12, 1979). (Birgit Beumers in her book, Yury Lyubimov at the Taganka Theatre, 1964-1994 , puts the Budapest premiere date as June 1978, although I am inclined to go with the information provided by the Taganka.) The Taganka website also provides a full program of the production at the Vig. Lyubimov would return to Crime and Punishment in 1983 at the Lyric Hammersmith in London; the Academy Theater in Vienna in 1984; and Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in 1987. This was not the only time that Lyubimov would stage a show abroad first and then follow with a production in Moscow. He did the same with Dostoevsky’s novel A Raw Youth, which he first directed in Finland in 1991 and then mounted at the Taganka in 1996.
Budapest was an important city for Lyubimov. He met the woman who would become his last wife while rehearsing Crime and Punishment at the Vig. Katalin Koncz was a journalist who interviewed Lyubimov and they ended up marrying, remaining together from 1978 until Lyubimov’s death in 2014. Lyubimov taught  for several years in Budapest at the theater academy. In fact, rounding out the Lyubimov-Vígszínház connection, the current artistic director here is Enikő Eszenyi, a director and actress who studied under Lyubimov at the Hungarian academy.

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Nikolai Erdman gravestone, Moscow

The death of Yury Lyubimov brought me back to Nikolai Erdman’s gravesite again. I come here on occasion to the Donskoye Cemetery to pay my respects to the writer who inspired me to write my first book. You see, Yury Lyubimov, the great director, the founder of the world-famous Taganka Theater, died last week (Oct. 5) at the age of 97 and was buried a mere thirty yards away from the writer who was his friend from the early 1940s until Erdman’s death in 1970. Lyubimov’s death was truly one of those moments when the hands on a country’s cultural clock ticked forward. I first met him because of my research on Erdman. Yury Petrovich was kind enough to spend a couple of hours talking to me about Erdman when he, Lyubimov, was in Cambridge, MA, in 1987. Ever since, although I never became anything even remotely close to a friend of Lyubimov’s, I nurtured a soft spot in my heart for him and had the opportunity to observe him regularly at close range.
One of the first things I did when I found myself in Moscow in the 1988/1989 season was to find a way to get as close as I could to Erdman. One way was by locating and talking to people who had known him. Another was to go to the Donskoye Cemetery to visit his grave. Erdman’s gravestone continues to impress me today as mightily as it did back then. It is a huge slab, much bigger than usual, with a big, crooked top edge.  The only thing written on it is “Erdman,” in very big letters, followed by “Nikolai Robertovich 1902-1970” in much smaller print. It is wonderfully laconic, and all the more so because that birthdate is incorrect. That error reflects how little anyone really knew about Erdman, not only when he died, but for all the time after he was ripped out of the Moscow cultural world in 1933, arrested and exiled to Siberia. Erdman, cooling his heels in the frozen city of Yeniseisk, happened to see that the Great Soviet Encyclopedia had been published with an erroneous birthdate for him – 1902 instead of 1900. He was thrilled to have grown younger by two years and he never bothered to correct the mistake, invariably using the wrong date even in official documents.
If you want to gauge just how close Erdman and Lyubimov now lie in their final resting places, take a close look at the photo immediately below. Just to the left of the upper part of Erdman’s gravestone you can see a man in a blue jacket. He is one of the people digging Lyubimov’s grave.


After the funeral service at the cemetery chapel I ran into Veniamin Smekhov, the famous Taganka actor, and another very good friend of Erdman’s in the writer’s latter years. He told me how, when he was doing a documentary film about Erdman, he came with a film crew and they hunted all over the cemetery but could not find his gravesite. It turned out that the problem was that Smekhov told the cemetery workers that Erdman died in 1970. “Oh,” they told him, “the 1970s are over here,” and they took Smekhov and his cameraman off in the wrong direction. Actually, Erdman is buried in the 1950s section. That would apparently be because his father Robert Karlovich, who died in 1950, was the first to be buried here. Robert was followed in 1960 by his son, Nikolai’s brother, the prominent theater artist Boris Robertovich Erdman, and then Erdman’s mother Valentina Borisovna Erdman (nee Kormer) in 1964.  They are remembered on a small plaque that lies in the lower left corner of the plot. You see that in the photo immediately above. Also buried here is Inna Kirpichnikova, Erdman’s third wife. They were divorced rather acrimoniously well before Erdman’s death, but her remains lie here, too. A small plaque bearing her name and dates leans against the slab commemorating Erdman.
There is a certain attractive symmetry – if I may use the word “attractive” in regards to a cemetery – in the fact that Erdman and Lyubimov are joined in the earth by Vsevolod Meyerhold, the man who was, essentially, the glue of their friendship. Erdman, of course, wrote for Meyerhold, and Lyubimov was the closest thing Meyerhold had to a disciple in Russian theater.
This is not the place for this story, but I will tease you with this: Meyerhold’s remains lie not far from those of Lyubimov and Erdman, although virtually no one knows that…

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Vladimir Vysotsky statue, Moscow


Are we still too close to Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) to see him properly? It’s been a hell of a long time since we lost him – he died during the boycotted Moscow Summer Olympics. I well remember hearing the news. I had returned from a six-month residence in Russia seven months earlier and Vysotsky’s music and his presence were still very alive in my mind. I owned two French-made LPs of his songs recorded in France and I absolutely loved them. Still do, in fact. The quality of the recordings was so much better than the primitive arrangements and mixes you got on the few available Soviet 45s and LPs. More to the point, however, my friend Vladimir Ferkelman in Leningrad owned many of the famous reel-to-reel samizdat tapes of Vysotsky singing his songs at parties, at home and at concerts, so I had had the opportunity to experience the singer-songwriter (if I may use that term) the way he was most often experienced in Russia – in somebody’s warm, cramped, inviting, booklined home on an old, soft sofa, with several people hunched over a tape player to hear the man sing. People on both sides of the pond have, from time to time, tried to describe Vysotsky as the Russian Bob Dylan. That’s always irked me. It just doesn’t fit. Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan and you can’t define anyone else using him as a measuring stick. Any more than you can force Vysotsky into a framework built on another artist. But that’s just a little aside. As I say, all of this was still very vivid in my memory when summer 1980 arrived. By then I was living in Washington, D.C., and I was working at a bookstore in Georgetown. I’d make my way to a metro stop at the Pentagon from my apartment in Alexandria, and from there I’d zip into Georgetown to work. One morning I was standing on the platform waiting for the next metro train to approach and I was doing what everyone was doing – I was reading a newspaper that I held out before me. I hesitate to say which newspaper because one might expect it to be the Washington Post, although I’m pretty sure it was the New York Times. Anyway, there was a piece on the front page below the fold telling that Vladimir Vysotsky had died. Boom. That didn’t make any sense, I’ll tell you. The guy was 42.


I knew Vysotsky as a singer and a writer of his own songs, and that’s what most everyone knew and loved him for. What was less obvious to some – especially a young foreigner wet behind the ears – was that he was also one of the great, charismatic actors of his time. Vysotsky’s Hamlet at Yury Lyubimov’s Taganka Theater is one of the great legends of the Russian stage. It is no secret that when Vysotsky died, Lyubimov lost just a little of his mojo at the Taganka and, before too long – four years later – he found himself in exile in the West. Vysotsky, like everyone else at the Taganka, drank like a fish. The difference was his genius. Lyubimov would fire or discipline other actors for showing up to work drunk, but he let Vysotsky get away with anything. It was almost a love affair. In fact I think Lyubimov’s worship of Vysotsky’s talent and charisma was very reminiscent of romantic love. It certainly sounds that way based on the memoirs and documents that have emerged in recent times.
But to get back to my original comment about our still being too close to Vysotsky to get a real grip on him. I began with that because the sculpture of the singer/actor that stands at the Petrovskiye Vorota plaza in Moscow just doesn’t capture the man for me. I see it as a kind of pop version, one that corresponds to the myth that lives and grows in the public’s mind, but which doesn’t get past the surface of the artist. I guess that’s okay, too. But I tend to respond better to art that is more daring and adventurous. This likeness by sculptor Gennady Raspopov and architect Anatoly Klimochkin seems to picture the performer soaking in the love of the masses. At the same time, his gaze is directed upwards; each of us can decide for ourselves what may or may not have attracted his attention up there. The statue was erected in 1995 and, if I’m not mistaken, it was the first monument raised to the great man, just 15 years after his death (caused by alcohol poisoning). I usually walk by the sculpture with a bit of a shudder and a thought or two of regret that I’d like to get closer to whatever made this man tick, but it’s not going to happen because of this piece of street art.

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Taganka Theater, Moscow



What a seat of events the Taganka Theater has been over the decades!  From Yury Lyubimov’s founding of the theater in 1964 (by firing almost the entire company that was there before him); the staging of some of the greatest productions in the history of Soviet Theater (The Good Person of Szechuan (1964), Hamlet (1971) and The Master and Margarita (1975); the exile of Lyubimov in 1984; the hiring and death of Anatoly Efros in the mid 1980s; the triumphant return of Lyubimov in 1989; the rancorous split that cut the theater in two by 1991; the scandalous break between Lyubimov and his troupe in 2011 which ended with Lyubimov resigning at the age of 93 and going solo; the bitter 50th anniversary season in 2013-2014 when a small group of disgruntled actors sought to sabotage official celebratory events throughout the season. And those are just SOME of the highlights… These images, taken in late fall 2013 on a snowy/drizzly day, seem to suggest that this theater will continue to live a vibrant life no matter what battles are going on inside it. In fact, it seems the more strife there is here, the more life there is.DSCN2065.jpg2