Tag Archives: Yury Olesha

Alexander Grin river boat, Moscow River

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DSCN9795 DSCN9797  My wife Oksana and I recently took up a perch overlooking the Moscow River. Well, it’s not actually the Moscow River. In this particular place it is called the Moscow Canal and just beyond it, on the other side of the bridge, it’s called the Klyazma Reservoir. But it looks and acts and smells (ever so sweetly) like a river to us, and so we call it a river. One of the reasons we feel entirely entitled to do that is because enormous ships navigate the waterways here daily. Huge barges, motor boats, sail boats, yachts, steamboats, houseboats and cargo boats go up the river, down the river, up the river, down the river. I would guess that at least a half-dozen times a day, if not more, we see huge passenger liners going by. They are among our favorites, in part because many have wonderful names – the good ships Mstislav Rostropovich, Igor Stravinsky, Andrei Rublyov, Sergei Yesenin, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikolai Gogol, Nikolai Karamzin, Alexander Radishchev, Ivan Krylov to name a few. As you see in the final two shots below, Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Chernyshevsky have their very own liners named after them. Regardless of what they’re called, every time we see one coming or going we run to the windows and hang on the windowsill, just watching the river flow and watching the ship sail on it.
After awhile I began to think – there may be something to write about here. But the Alexander Pushkin? I’ve written about him a million times and I have another million photos involving him that are still waiting to be written about. It’s the same, to lesser degrees, in regards to Bulgakov, Rostropovich, Gogol, Stravinsky and others. But then one day, a few days ago, the perfect boat came chugging down the river, heading in towards Moscow from St. Petersburg. Hoping for something good, I began photographing it before its name came into view. And when the ship did come abreast of me, I was thrilled – it was the Alexander Grin! What a perfect combination! And I’ve never seen any plaque or monument in the cities I’ve inhabited or visited that would give me an opportunity to share a few stories about this fantastic writer.
Alexander Grin (1880-1932) was the son of Stefan Hryniewski, a Pole who had been sent into “eternal exile” in Siberia. As such Alexander’s real last name in Russian was Grinevsky. He appears to have been a restless soul, trying out all kinds of different professions and places of residence. Among his jobs were: woodsman, fisherman, railroad worker, gold miner, bookbinder, scribe and many more. At the age of 16 he set out for the great port city of Odessa with the idea in mind of becoming a sailor. According to Russian Wikipedia, however, Grin was a lousy sailor. On his first voyage he got in an argument with the captain, jumped ship and went home. Before long he was drawn into Russia’s nascent revolutionary movement and he ended up being arrested numerous times for his activities – in various cities such as Kamyshin, Sebastopol and St. Petersburg. In 1905 he was convicted to four years in prison near Tobolsk, but escaped within three days (his dad helped him obtain a false passport). Three years earlier he had deserted his post when serving in the army…
I toss all this together in a jumble in order to declare what should be obvious by now: the only thing Grin was really good for and at, and the only thing he really could do, or wanted to do, was to write. And, indeed, over the last 25 years of his life, Grin became one of the most interesting, beloved and unique writers in the Russian literary canon.

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Encyclopedias tell us about the neoromantic, psychological, philosophical, symbolist, mystical and fantastic elements in Grin’s writings. What most any Russian kid – or adult who has not forgotten his or her childhood – will tell you, though, is that his adventure stories are among the best, most vivid they ever encountered. Although he turned out to be a lousy sailor, some of his best-loved works are about watery voyages. Many of those have been made into popular films, including Scarlet Sails, She Who Runs on Waves, 100 Versts on the River and more. In fact, there have been at least three films made of Scarlet Sails (1961, 1982, 2010), and two of She Who Runs on Waves (1967, 2007).
The world of Grin’s literature (he began writing in 1906) is strange, somewhat foreboding and endlessly attractive. You sense danger in there and you are compelled to move closer to the edge to see what is happening more closely. Many of his works take place in a land that he imagined himself and which came to be known as Grinland (having nothing to do, of course, with Greenland). Notably, virtually none of Grin’s works (he wrote novels, stories and poetry) reflected the life that surrounded him in Russia. This, of course, was a bold, maybe even risky, choice on the part of the writer. In a tradition that (rightly or wrongly) held Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and even Gogol on pedestals for the way in which they reflected and commented on the fate of their nation and their people, Grin simply turned his back entirely on reality and used his literature to escape into his own fantasy land. A film of his tale Mister Designer, about an artist who wishes to beat death by means of making sculptures that will live forever, became a huge hit upon release in 1988 and remains a cult favorite today.
Grin did not consider himself the author of fantasies or unreal adventures. He saw himself more as a symbolist. Again I lean on Russian Wikipedia, which has an extraordinarily long and detailed entry on the writer: “Yury Olesha recalled that he once expressed his admiration for the marvelous fantastic idea of a human that flies (“The Brilliant World”), but Grin, in fact, was offended: ‘That is a symbolic novel, not a fantasy novel! That is not a flying person, but rather the soaring of a soul!‘”
During the Soviet years Grin was able to publish only for a short time in the mid-1920s, when the control of the Communist Party was at its laxest. By the late 1920s he was cut off from publishing entirely and his works only began reappearing decades later. He died of cancer of the stomach a month short of his 42nd birthday, in obscurity and poverty. His reputation since then has struggled at times to achieve the respect it deserves. Grin is often referred to as a writer for young adults, but this is a gross simplification. Little by little that prejudice has lost power in recent decades, but Grin still does not fit into the usual overall blueprint of Russian literature. In fact, he was a unique, powerful and talented writer whose imagination has enriched the Russian consciousness for over a century. Sail on, Alexander Grin!

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Andrei Platonov plaque, Voronezh train station

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There is a line (there are many) that my wife Oksana and I frequently quote from Nikolai Erdman’s play The Suicide. The mailman Yegor is starting to throw his weight around because he’s getting tired of being treated with what he considers to be disrespect, by life and by those around him. So when someone tells him all the topics that writers write about, Yegor puffs up and snaps, “I’m a mailman! And mailmen want to read about mailmen!”
I couldn’t help but think of that when I was standing on the platform of the Voronezh train station a few weeks ago at around 7 a.m. You see, entirely unexpectedly, I ended up standing just beneath a plaque on the station wall that proclaimed: “Voronezh. The homeland of the writer Andrei Platonov, the author of many works about railroad workers. 1899-1999.” A second plaque just beneath that adds: “On the 100th anniversary of the writer’s birthday.”
Anniversaries are great – if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have found half the plaques and sculptures that make up this blog. But, as you understand, I’m most intrigued right now by that information that the Voronezh railway station offers up on its platform – that Platonov (real last name Klimentov) wrote “many works about the railroad.”
Yes! Railway workers want to read about railways!
By the way, my concentrated reference back to Erdman here has another aspect to it. Platonov and Erdman were good friends who shared a similar life in the 1940s. Platonov (1899-1951) went virtually unpublished after the 1930s. He never was arrested, never spent time in the camps, but he was virtually erased from the face of contemporary Soviet literature. He could not be erased from Soviet or Russian literature proper, because he was too damn good. He is now considered one of the greatest Russian writers of his age. There are those would consider him one of the greatest, most distinctive writers of any language in the 20th century. But that’s what we know now. In his life he, like Erdman, was shunted off into obscurity. Perhaps this drew the two together, or perhaps they were simply sympatico. The details I have at my fingertips, are, unfortunately, skimpy. It’s something I’ve always wanted to know more about, in grand, juicy detail. But, so far, no go.
Still, what I can say is this: Platonov and Erdman used to hang out from time to time at the Metropole Hotel in the center of Moscow. They would drink and talk and, perhaps, drink some more. I don’t know what Platonov drank. Erdman drank only cognac. That was his poison. But there was another component to these meetings and his name was Yury Olesha. That’s right, three writers with great comic talent, three writers hounded out of the public eye by the times they lived in and the people they lived among. And they would get together at the Metropole and talk. And drink. I know Olesha was quite a drinker. Erdman was too, although the word I have from many a source is that no one ever saw him drunk. In fact, he didn’t like sloppy drunks. But he did love his cognac. Platonov – I don’t know. This blog space is public, somebody can fill me in if they do know. But the image I’m working in my head right now is of the magnificent Metropole, right across from the Bolshoi and Maly Theaters, and there in the bar or restaurant is a table with three men sitting, drinking, chatting. Platonov. Erdman. Olesha. Wow.
Who knows what they talked about? Literature? Maybe. Colleagues? Probably. Women? Certainly. Themselves? No way. What I’m saying is that even if we could find a way to go back 70 years in the guise of a fly on the wall, I’m betting we wouldn’t learn a damn thing about any of these guys and what they were up against. We might learn plenty about life, but not about their biographies. All three of them were a special cut of individual – reserved, self-protected, quiet. What a sight it must have been. For the record, I heard tales of these meetings from the writer Iosif Prut, a childhood friend of Erdman’s, who used to get into street fights with the future playwright, and who was also a friend and admirer of Platonov and Olesha.

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Platonov’s father Platon Klimentov worked as a mechanic on the railroad. One day, when Andrei was around 15,  his dad took him to work, a trip that changed the boy’s life. Here is what the Literary Map of the Voronezh Region website says about it:

“In June 1914, with school behind him, the 15 year-old Andrei set off with his father to the estate of the Bek-Marmarchevy family (village of Ustye of the Devitskaya district of Voronezh county – now the Khokholsky area) to repair a broken-down steam locomotive. Having fixed the engine, Andrei stayed on as the engineer’s assistant. For the first time there he encountered real machines – steam powered combines that created kinetic energy, such as he had studied in school in his physics classes. The train rig made a lasting impression on the youth and inspired great interest in technology and the striving to harness it, that lasted all his life. […] From January 1915 to July 1916 he worked as a clerk in the  South-East Railroad Society. By summer’s end in 1916, Andrei began working in a pipe factory, an affiliate of the Stoll and Co. Mechanics Factory. After working there a year as a  foundryman, he returned to the South-East Railroad Society, where he worked in the railway workshops.”

In summer 1920 Andrei began studying to be a railroad electrician, but the hardships of the Russian Civil War interrupted that plan.  I return the narrative to the website text:

“The first workers’ Communist regiment of railway defenders of the southern front was formed by the political office of the South-East Railroad from volunteers among workers and clerks along that stretch of the railroad. Cadet [Andrei] Klimentov volunteered as a common infantryman in the regiment. It was a difficult time for the future writer and it had an enormous influence on him. His impressions bound up in the Civil War; his work on the steam engine; and the stories he heard from his father – who worked on a snow-clearing engine that cleared out snowdrifts inundating the steel rails from Voronezh to Lisok; – all of this was reflected directly in his novella The Innermost Man.”

Platonov’s language and images had the spirit of railroads and engines and machines in them. It is a constructed language and world, built by a man who had a unique eye and ear for the world around him. This station platform where Oksana and I stood for a few minutes before boarding our train to Moscow would have been a place Platonov saw and visited often.

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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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