A journey with the literary «Titanic»

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21.11.2012

For over 10 years, Moscow publishing house "New Elite" has been expanding the cultural map of the country, its capital and the surrounding countries of the Eurasian area by fruitfully collaborating with UNESCO educational and training programs. An important contribution to the strengthening of cultural ties was the album book about the formation of the Soviet and post-Soviet space, called "Presidents and the people. The path of the CIS countries in the Third Millennium", with insightful sketches of historical way, the material and spiritual culture, the creative achievements of the people from the Commonwealth. The publishing house released a series of album encyclopedias dedicated to the World Heritage sites of the planet, Russia and CIS countries. The album called "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" was also released. The release of a poetry book by one of the outstanding UNESCO General Directors Federico Mayor in two languages (translation by Yevtushenko, R. Kazakova) was an outstanding event. The book "The factor of hope" written by the previous General Director of UNESCO Koichiro Matsuura on the concept of activities, programs and objectives of the Organization, released by the same publishing house was presented personally to the author by the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.

Our readers, Moscow residents and guests of the capital have always been attracted to a series of historical and cultural guides to the central districts of Moscow (such as "Arbat", "Zamoskvorechye", "Yakimanka", "Presnya" and others), which introduces both the best architectural sites and ensembles of the city, as well as the outstanding figures of the inhabitants of these old streets and alleys. Continuing and developing the subject, a biographical guide around the famous House on the embankment, "House book of an era" has been released. "New Elite" is now preparing to release a new book in this genre, called "Lavrushin's wreath". This will be tour around a house as famous in the cultural space of Moscow, once inhabited by many classics of Soviet literature. The house of the Stalinist classicism situated in Lavrushinsky Lane near the Tretyakov Gallery once accommodated such famous people as Pasternak, Paustovskiy, Ehrenburg and Kataev, Yuriy Olesha and Konstantin Fedin, Ilf and Petrov, Makarenko and Kazakevich... What their art laboratory looked like, which works have stood the test of time and which have sunk into oblivion? How did the so-called writers of ‘grand style’ work, communicate and quarrel? Author of the book, a journalist and a novelist Andrey Tarasov (who was awarded with a "Crown" by the Moscow Union of Writers in 2010 for his novel "Unarmed" and  stories and novels from various years, such as "Shell of Mind", "Return Ticket", "Swamp March", "Stars and Satellites", "No paradise except Nuhur"etc.) tried to sort this out. Below is one of the fragments from the book – an interview with the daughter of the Soviet era notable writer, Lev Nikulin.

INTERVIEW WITH O.L. NIKULINA

A room is furnished with old-fashioned massive carved furniture, a sofa sagged down by Nikulin himself, a wall covered with photos and drawings. On photos is the "responsible tenant" himself from the youthful poetic curls à la Lensky to similar ones but respectably gray and thinner, à la Alexei Tolstoy... Pictures together with an old friend Ardov – young and black-haired men at first, then grey-headed and stout… Ardov’s auto-caricatures left as a keepsake, a hatched expressive face of their mutual friend, Stenich, who was shot in the 30s… It was an era rich in big wigs! Friends of the family: Akhmatova, Ilf… Gorky and Wells in a special frame, Nikulin as their interpreter. Watercolors of landscapes and villages by our contemporary, young Alexei Batalov…

- Mrs. Olga Livovna, may I start by introducing you to the people? You are a translator, a longtime employee of the Rudomino Library of Foreign Literature. And here is a sensational book by Robert Payne called "Lenin" in your translation. With all the historical dirt, as they say. I am curious as to how your father would have reacted to this? Would he be amazed? Upset? Would he support it?

- It wouldn’t be a big surprise to my father. He knew a lot, travelled abroad a lot, read all the early anti-Soviet and foreign newspapers on this topic. He witnessed the creation of Lenin’s cult figure, took part in it, for him it was no surprise when the myth was dispelled. But the book confirms the fact that Lenin was a "Die Hard" in politics.

- Do you agree that your father was a kind of reflection of Ilya Ehrenburg -  both before and after the revolution he was quite at home in Europe, especially in Paris, and we have always associated it with some instructions...

- Dad considered Ehrenburg to be a real Stalinist. He called the regime ‘Satanism’. Among his friends, of course. Dad's role is much more modest. He had more personal relations then political. You know how they say: overseas connections, overseas connections. Just imagine a gymnasium student from Odessa, such a freedom-loving and adventurous boy, who flees home with his brother and illegally crosses the Romanian border, to make his way to Paris by means of hitchhiking, as they say. They sell newspapers and cigarettes, familiarize themselves with each and every café and theatre, make acquaintances and work as reporters in the “yellow press”… Back then there was not a hint of Cheka and KGB, as it was Tsarist Russia before World War II. Later my father would toy with the idea of staying abroad; French was like his second native language. Paris in those days – perestroika writers just didn’t get it. For example, the myth of how my father supplied Gorky with ballerinas. In Paris he had a circle of friends from his youth – actors, dancers, poets, and journalists. He was very popular among girls so it was absolutely no problem for them to pay a visit to Gorky, a tour or a picnic, nothing more… Gorky threw great parties; he liked to flaunt his generosity… Then he ‘set my dad up’ by luring him to the USSR. He begun earning more as he received substantial fees; he could not have a family in France while in Russia he could.

Then there were relatives. His father, my grandfather, Benjamin, raised himself from simple typesetters to the eminent southern Russian actors, then entrepreneurs and in the end he became director of the theater. It's funny that when he was touring, he was forced to register outside the Pale of Settlement, as when entering a foreign country, all because of his "Jewishness". This is when he decided to baptize himself and forced other fellow Jews to do so as well, in order to not irritate other artists and get rid of surveillance. Moreover, after consulting with an Orthodox priest he came to the conclusion that this procedure and rituals are too cumbersome and tedious, and preferred Lutheranism. At the beginning of the turmoil he emigrated with the company of actors, first to Paris, then to America. In America with him were three brothers and a sister, because they have had as many as eleven children! Not counting the numerous cousins scattered around the world.

Family was of many fates and convictions. Brother Victor, for example, left with the White Guards, worked in Paris as a taxi driver, then his father appointed him as a driver in the Soviet Embassy. Kostya became a professor in America. Younger sister Tamara got there along with my father; she married Akim Tamiroff, who later became a Hollywood actor and starred with Dina Durbin in fables about Russian immigrants, kind of a Cossack, he played gangsters and the like. When they came to Moscow and stayed at the "National", mum and dad treated them as respected guests... When Dad went abroad, all foreign brothers and sisters would gather in Paris, where they had a family meeting. Those who remained in Russia went through tragedies common at the time. Sister Magda served 12 years of imprisonment, her husband Tumarkin was shot…

So my father had to fulfill some obligations in order to support his relatives, both in the country or abroad, as they were like hostages everywhere. Well, here’s one of the examples. He studied at the gymnasium with Boris Pregel, who later became a major nuclear scientist, one of the pillars of the U.S. nuclear program, who had also lived in Paris for a while. My father was asked to meet him and talk on the subject whether America is going to attack us. What public mood they have on this account. In Paris, he got in touch with the old friend, through the secretary at first, introduced himself, and was invited to dinner at the scientist’s Paris villa together with my mother. Villa overlooking a gorgeous park through a huge glass hemispherical wall made ​​a great impression on them, as well as fine dining. And in a conversation about their childhood, the past, art and other things my father asked, of course, whether America will strike the Union. The scientist just laughed: one must be a madman to offer someone in the United States attack the USSR. He would be immediately torn to pieces. Americans have such a good life; they appreciate comfort so much that they wouldn’t want to lose it, let alone dying! Nothing of the kind!

However, the conversation was useful to everyone – father brought two or three books of Boris’s sister, Sophia Pregel, shown them in the Writers Union and helped publish her ​​poems in Russia…

- It’s just a “people’s diplomacy”, as they said later… However other writers went abroad as much…

- Everyone was green with envy. Moreover, father was already in the editorial boards of such magazines as "Moscow" and "Foreign Literature" being among its founders. People unaware of his sarcasm brought their manuscripts for review. He was merciless, reading and snorting: steelworkers again... far from Moscow, again… the white birch, again... This is no literature. And if the writers were of Jewish origin they would be outraged by how my father was failing his fellows. Some high words were uttered. I remember a phone call: "You bastard, an old snitch!" - one good acquaintance, a writer shouted at my father. He responded with all his might, "You bastard yourself, the same to you!" Mum tried to reason him, make him stop these talks, as they might be a provocation set up by state security organizations themselves.

Another delicate task were Bunin’s archives. Father met with Vera Nikolaevna, with whom he was familiar since the early literary circles. After the death of Bunin, she was surrounded by a swarm of various dealers; there was even a gigolo among them. The hunting for these archives was begun. Foreign Commission of the Writers' Union instructed father to persuade her to sell these archives to her fatherland for good money. Father met her and after they talked, she agreed. He brought Bunin’s archive in a thick briefcase and initiated Bunin's first publication in "Moscow" - "Dark Avenues" (Russian: Тёмные аллеи). The money given to Vera enabled her to make a decent living in a pension for the elderly…

- He deserves an award for these deeds…

- Alas he wasn’t awarded; moreover, rumors were spreading that my father was a stool pigeon. These trips to Paris cost him dearly. Moreover, when he became disabled, we had to go there with my mother. During perestroika it became fashionable to expose the dead. Usually, the unmaskers were ones who themselves were amongst "whistleblowers". When I came into to perestroika era “Yunost” (Russian: Юность) to submit the novel to the prose department (the novel was my father’s own living experience of the writers of the time and environment) I was shocked to hear that the editor in chief had thrown out the portfolio with the words: "Not for the world will I publish a work by Lev Nikulin’s daughter ".

- Is it the chief editor who underwent the Youth Communist School in the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee as a very patriotic poet and was taming the so-called stars?

- Yes, the one…

- “who the judges are” indeed…

- An evil epigram, which was attributed to Kazakevich, had appeared: “Lev Nikulin, a squealer, has recently released a two-volume book”. However Kazakevich was an honest frontline officer and an honest writer. He and my father were good friends, they loved to drink, here in this room they sat for hours, picked literary generals and functionaries to pieces, there was laughter; neither of them feared each other. And then, many years after Kazakevich’s death, this information comes to light. But this is absolutely not in his honest style. It’s unbelievable. They were friends with Misha Ardov of Akhmatova's nest. Misha even assisted him as a secretary – was helping to search the right quote or take a shoe to repair… My father once gave Misha great French suede shoes because the size was too small for him; Misha brought them to a shoemaker in order to add pins and the shoemaker, bastard, pretended to have lost them. When in fact, he had stolen them…

- Talk about “After-tossing” (Russian: Мертвая зыбь) together with “Trust” operation (Russian: операция «Трест»)… Did he himself understand what it was all about?

 - I think he regarded “Trust” as a literary sensation. Back then, in the '60s, “Trust” members had an aura of martyrs and knights of the revolution who died of Stalinist repression, and he seemed to be paying tribute to this fact. Besides, they were his friends and acquaintances from his romantic youth, from the time of mission in Afghanistan… Of course it was reckless of him to make a hero of such scoundrel as Yakushev.

- Speaking of your house, who was Если говорить о доме, who was the chief here?

- My mother, of course. His first wife was not that simple as well - Duchess Lisette Volkonskaya, a secular, "glamor" girl, as they say. It was a tumultuous, though a quick marriage, which began with an acquaintance in poetry club. He first met my mother in the Gorky family house on Malaya Nikitskaya at a party with the artists; and then in the "Zhurgaz", Mikhail Koltsov’s newspaper and magazine publishing house, among his friends. She, Ekaterina Ivanovna Rogozhina, on the contrary, descended from a merchant family, manufacturers of the famous Samovar. The grandfather himself was a merchant from the working class; he fought in the trenches of the First World War. My mom, his daughter, was an aspiring actress with golden hair and hazel eyes; somehow she reminded of a pink and white marshmallow. They got married when she still resided in the Chisty Lane (Russian: Чистый переулок) where she had an apartment, where me and my sister Sasha were conceived; near the Austrian Embassy, which is now the residence of the patriarch. We were born at Lavrushenskiy. We are twins, she’s 40 minutes older. Back then Kataev approached us and said: “Who would knew that such an insolent fellow has two daughters”. My mom is the owner of the apartment, she had furnished it all by herself. She called my dad homeless because for him all this furniture was an unnecessary luxury. Every time she purchased something he asked: "Why, Kate?" She just sparkled eyes: "What do you Jews know!" When we finally settled down in the house, the war began; we were evacuated to Chelyabinsk, to where my mother was sent with Maly Theatre (Russian: Малый Театр). We returned in 1942 and in 1945 we went to school.

- Lev Nikulin appeared in the front-line press…

- Back in General Kryukov’s division…

- That’s where the friendship with Ruslanova stems from?

- No, back then she was Garkavi’s wife; he was a stout well-known entertainer. She was granted an apartment since she was nation’s favourite; she and mom were very good friends. To cut a long story short I’d say Ruslanova was a great woman. Sharp-tongued, with a terrific sense of humor. When she visited us, there was a continuous laughter. Then there came General Kryukov.

- Come and gone! Together with Ruslanova... How did you treat them being arrested? «For the trophies» or «for Zhukov»?

- «For Zhukov», of course. Everyone understood that they were forced to testify against Zhukov and it was not related to some "trophy", but real espionage and anti-Soviet propaganda. It is true that their maids rubbed their hands and marveled at how many packs of money and jewelry was confiscated. They had their own opinion on the subject – "for wealth." Ardovs together with their parents locked themselves up to not hear, they were drinking and discussing all that happened... My mother was also summoned to witness against Anti-Soviet mood and Ruslanova’s talks. But none of it was heard from mom, although their company was a real breeding-ground for anti-Soviet talks and jokes on the subject, no celebration could do without it.

- Who else visited your house?

- It’s an endless list. Akhmatova, exactly as she is presented - the majestic, "royal"… Speaking of the young, our parents tried to marry us off with Ardov’s sons back in early adolescence, we communicated and played a lot with Misha and Boris… His brother Yury’s son, Valentin Nikulin, who became an artist of Sovremennik Theatre. We used to call him Kuzya, a derivation for "cousin". Valya came here dressed as a young dandy, with a bow-tie; he read Mayakovsky and the decadents… Alyosha Batalov, a handsome young man, bon vivant, not ascetic from the "Nine Days of One Year." He taught us to skate, dance tango, read poetry, cultivated love for Pasternak…

- You didn’t like Pastenak?       

- Not at first…

- Whom did you like?

- We fell in love Akhmatova right away… But the main cultivator was, of course, dad. He would lie on this couch, summon us around him and read poems by Sasha Chorny, Khodasevich, Gumilev, Zabolotsky, Severyanin from memory… He was really fond of certain mischief in poetry, such as "pineapples in champagne", "someone was beaten there and here I am treated kindly…" Once we rested in Dubulti and minister of culture, Khrapchenko’s family rested there as well. He was a real Soviet, annoyingly upright. We, the girls, performed in front of them; we liked to sing frivolous songs in English; since the time was cosmopolitan, vigilance was everywhere. Suddenly, Khrapchenko’s face changed, his lips twisted; Dad became alert and my mother uttered «Sing us somehing Soviet, Pioneer!» And we sang "Russian and Chinese are brothers forever", "Stalin and Mao listen to us"… Khrapchenko’s face came back to normal, mother calmed down, Dad’s lips twitch; he forced himself not to laugh… In fact, I was an Orthodox Pioneer and a Komsomol girl, I believed in all of it, read Korchagin, Simonov... I think dad believed nothing of it and entertained us by reading "doubtful" poetry. I found a slim volume of Mandelstam's poetry, who was banned back then, under the mattress...

Alexander Vertinsky sang to us at this very table; they used to sing cabaret duets with dad. Maria Budberg, Gorky’s latest passion, was sitting here, already monumental and always mysterious… Mom listened to their conversations about the past, about people who surrounded Gorky, especially in Capri, with interest, but also jealousy. Ksenya Kuprina, daughter of the famous writer, actress of the Pushkin Theater also visited us. She was completely cowed there because of her too prominent surname and had to leave... Daddy helped her by bringing some money from Paris.

He had to help Olesha when people began to trample on him. Kataev turned away from him, although they were old friends; moreover, he was jealous of him as a writer. He could sting him under his back and assent to some mockery of Olesha. The poor fellow, in his turn, had lost his apartment in a house due to the fact that he did not send the rent when he was in evacuation, tramping through his friends. Olga Gustavovna sewed for writers’ wives. Mom helped her, gave some money and food. Dad wrote a letter in which he requested the apartment back ... Yury Karlovich could come in here with a tormented look and weakly say "Olya has nothing to eat". He was wearing a single coat – when he unbuttoned it there was nothing but pants on him. He squandered everything in a cheap bar. "Lev, can you give me some clothes". We gave him dad’s sweater and a clean shirt. Regardless of all, he never ceased to show his gloomy wit… Unfortunately, he always drank; it lead to ruptured ulcer and the heart attack…

Say all you want, but for me the most important remains the principle: "Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are". Our house was always full of friends, moreover, they were such wits and jokers that the walls were shaking with laughter when they were twaddling and drinking. And no one was afraid of dad. There were such people, of whom one might say – keep silent in their company. I won’t give particular names, but dad’s was never among them…

-  Big thanks for introducing me to this crowd…

Andrey TARASOV