Tag Archives: Zinaida Raikh

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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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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