Maksimilian Voloshin, Sobranie sochinenii [collected Works], vol. 7, book 1: Zhurnal puterhestviia: Dnevnik 1901-1903.
Mariia Stepanovna Voloshina, O Makse, o Koktebele, o sebe: Vospominaniia. Pis'ma [On Max, Koktebel', and Myself. Memoirs. Letters], ed. Vladimir Petrovich Kupchenko. 368 pp. Feodosiia: Koktebel', 2003. ISBN 594230058.
Barbara Walker, Maximilian Voloshin and the Russian Literary Circle: Culture and Survival in Revolutionary Times. xiv + 236 pp. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. ISBN 025334431X. $39.95.
"About 300 years ago, the courts of European monarchs boasted artificial dwarves. A child would be placed inside a foreshortened porcelain barrel with a hole in its bottom and kept there for several years. Then the barrel would be broken and an unnaturally fat, squat little freak on thin legs would crawl out of the porcelain debris. If such a dwarf were given Zeus's head with its curly hair and luxurious beard, you would get Max Voloshin." This sarcastic comment comes from Boris Sadovskoi's recollection of his immediate impressions of the poet in the late 1800s. At the time, Sadovskoi (an intimate friend of Vladislav Khodasevich and a talented man of letters in his own right) was unaware that he himself was soon to become a cripple, spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair in sheer agony. Nor did he know that Voloshin would merit scholarly biographies (including the one under review), books of memoirs, an exquisite non-feature film Golosa (Voices, 1997) by Andrei Osipov, annual literary competitions in his honor, and a voluminous edition of his collected works, thus eclipsing many of his illustrious peers in popularity and attention in 21st-century Russia. 2 It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the 2000s, Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932) is as popular with the students of culture and readers at large as were Vladimir Nabokov and Mikhail Kuzmin in the 1990s, Akhmatova in the 1980s, and Mikhail Bulgakov in the 1960s.
"If [Voloshin] is little known outside Russia, even among intellectuals and scholars familiar with the region, that is because we outsiders do not really understand his world," the cultural historian Barbara Walker explains in her illuminating and well-researched book (2). An original poet, perceptive art critic, and imaginative painter of Crimean landscapes, until recently Voloshin was remembered primarily as Marina Tsvetaeva's guardian angel whom she celebrated in "Zhivoe o zhivom" (A Living Thing about a Living Person), a fervent commemorative essay written shortly after Voloshin's death in 1932. In his lifetime, Voloshin "was more famous than well known." "I cannot think of a more tempting subject for a biographical novel," the art critic Erikh Gollerbakh claimed in 1934.3 Walker's timely book is neither a biographical novel, however, nor a literary biography in the conventional understanding of this genre. "Rather, it addresses a set of interlinked questions pertaining to the culture and society of the literary intelligentsia" "at a vital moment in its development," that is, "during the years of transition from the Imperial polity to the Soviet one" (3, 2).
Although Tsvetaeva's recollections undoubtedly provided inspiration and an impetus for Walker's research, her treatment of the subject is radically different from that of Tsvetaeva. While the latter lays claim to a unique bond with Voloshin, founded on their affinity and Voloshin's unbounded generosity ("I can say that he loved poems exactly as I did, that is, as if he himself were incapable of writing any poetry, with the whole strength of an unrequited love for a power beyond reach") ,4 Walker, in a sense, strips this lasting relationship of its exceptionality and exclusiveness by placing it within the broader context of what she insightfully defines as the Russian kruzhok culture. Walker does not doubt Voloshin's capacity for genuine attachment to and compassion for a number of talented men and women whom he met and supported in the course of his turbulent life, but her focus is on the larger cultural and social issues at stake in Russia in the first quarter of the 20th century, when these relationships were in a state of gestation. Voloshin's admirers might be perplexed to read that he was, in fact, "a remarkable social creator after his own fashion, a wily and skillful manipulator of his culture, a master of its microdynamics of power" (3). However, this description is substantiated by Walker's research and should not come as a total surprise to a student of Russian history.
From the end of the 18th century until the late 1920s, Walker writes in her introduction, Russian cultural and intellectual life to a considerable extent was managed and maintained through a system of personal patron age, which manifested itself in the activity of various circles (kruzhki) that were formed around capable mentors and even outstanding institution-builders. These included Nikolai Chernyshevskii, Alexander Herzen, the Rubinshtein brothers, Savva Mamontov, Sergei Diaghilev, Maksim Gorkii, Valerii Briusov, and Viacheslav Ivanov, to name but a few. These circles and their leaders assisted their members in networking and facilitated their professional development by giving them access to publication venues or, simply, much needed advice on issues ranging from proper "behavior to appropriate dress, and generally aiding these often upwardly mobile clients in their attempts to build new ways of living" (13). Strategically, the circles filled in the empty niches neglected by the pragmatically oriented state institutions, since the circles--unlike the institutions--favored personal ties, fostering a sense of egalitarianism and adherence to spiritual values. Often enough, they found themselves in opposition to the state and its social order, which ultimately led the Soviets to ban all circles in 1932.
Walker's crisp and thought-provoking introduction is followed by nine chapters in which she presents a detailed account of Voloshin's development from a typical "intelligentsia child" in the 1880s, single-handedly raised by a doting and authoritarian mother, to the founder of an intellectual summer colony in Crimea (Voloshin's kruzhok) in the early 1910s and, ultimately, to a gifted entrepreneur and incomparable custodian of Russian culture in the years following the Bolshevik Revolution. During the Civil War, Voloshin succeeded in saving numerous people's lives regardless of their political affiliations. (This episode in Voloshin's life also became the focus of Osipov's film Golosa.) As a poet, he was liked by both the Reds and the Whites, a remarkable achievement in that period of unprecedented bloodshed and revolutionary unrest. The last years of his life were marked by a stroke that decreased his ability to write and even to paint. Voloshin's life was further complicated by his ineffectual attempts to give his famous residence-the hub of his kruzhok activity in Koktebel'--a respectable institutional identity that would be recognized by the Soviets, thereby protecting it and its inhabitants (not least his wife) from imminent destruction and destitution.
Walker writes with verve, and her prose is lucid. One can easily read Maximilian Voloshin and the Russian Literary Circle in two or three sittings. The few factual mistakes and typos that I detected can be easily corrected. Specifically, the name of Mariia Izergina is misspelled throughout the book (144, 145, 213, 232). Gumilev did not start flirting with Dmitrieva in Koktebel' in the summer of 1909 (80): when they arrived there together in May, they already were an "item." "Lilia" was not Voloshin's name for Dmitrieva (81)--that was what she was called in her family and by her friends. In 1909, Dmitrieva was not yet married (81). Voloshin was writing to Petrova about his duel with Gumilev in November 1909 and not in 1908 (81). The line "la Pria iz Prei" would be more appropriately translated as "I am the utmost Pria/Pra of all the other Prias/Pras" (102).
Walker writes about Voloshin's first encounter with Ekaterina Alekseevna, the second wife of the poet Konstantin Bal'mont (44). Prior to their meeting, Ekaterina had heard rumors about Voloshin befriending her husband in Paris and partaking in his nightly debauches, and "was much astonished when, upon returning from a walk with her daughter Nina one day, she met Voloshin himself at her door in Moscow. Nina had run home ahead of her, and as Ekaterina approached her home, 'to [her] great surprise, [she] saw Nina in the arms of [a] stranger."' It took her only a few minutes to realize that Voloshin was her ally and her husband's devoted friend, in fact, soon to become indispensable "in managing [Ekaterina's complicated] domestic situation." Walker praises Voloshin for "stepp [ing] so deftly and yet respectfully right into those spheres of concern [where Ekaterina] felt most vulnerable: her daughter's safety and her relationship with her husband" (44). Such sensitivity on Voloshin's part in dealing with underappreciated and lonely women is one of the many manifestations, Walker insists, of his unique ability to manage and manipulate his future followers; not surprisingly, most of these were women and adolescents, who were later to become instrumental in building Voloshin's own circle and, eventually, his cult (45).
Ekaterina's own account of her first meeting with Voloshin, however, is slightly different from Walker's. "One day, I went to open the door for the nanny and my little girl, who were coming home from a stroll. To my great surprise, I saw a stranger holding my Nina in his arms." (5) So Ekaterina was not all that lonely and helpless. At least, she had a nanny to assist her with some chores. What, one might ask, is the point of this nitpicking? What does it matter if Ekaterina had a nanny or had to walk her daughter all by herself, thus becoming a more likely prey to Voloshin's interpersonal skills? I think this (probably) unintended distortion on Walker's part points to a kind of ontological tension in her otherwise commendable enterprise. In her book, she combines broad theoretical schemes, such as her introductory essay on the Russian kruzhok culture that spans two centuries, with a close reading of one life that is meant to illustrate these theoretical generalizations. Inevitably, such an approach results in intellectual streamlining, making Voloshin's life unfold teleologically from an indecisive disciple to a manipulative and powerful leader on a par with Stalin himself.' Unlike Voloshin (whose sphere of influence was restricted to his circle in Koktebel'), Stalin "possessed that most potent combination of cultural leadership modes: he combined structural power, the patriarchal power of personal patronage as it had been anchored in the bureaucratic system of the Soviet Union, with power based on the dream communitas, the dream of self-transformation" (193). What Stalin lacked was "the quality of humanness" (193). In some odd way, this accounts for Voloshin's posthumous popularity with the memoirists, whose disillusionment with Stalin's dictatorship caused them to start searching for alternative styles of leadership. If one were to look at Voloshin and Stalin at a millennium's remove, such a comparison might seem plausible and informative in the grand scheme of things. At present, it seems somewhat far-fetched and even harmful to the overall impression of the book. Likewise, while Victor Turner's anthropological theories shed useful light on the Russian kruzhok culture in general, they prove less effectual and illuminating when applied to Voloshin's life in particular. It would seem that to assess Voloshin's personal contribution to the philosophy of the kruzhok culture, one should consider his own writings, such as his essay "Individualism v iskusstve" (Individualism in the Arts, 1906), in which he preached the artists' anonymity and detachment from their products as a foundational cultural principle. Also strangely missing from Walker's account are any references to Aleksei Remizov's comic elitist society "Obezvelvopal" (The Monkeys' Great and Unrestricted Chamber) and to the artistic summer community that the painter Arkhip Kuindzhi organized in Crimea for the benefit of his students from Academia. These may well have been important sources of influence that informed Voloshin's understanding of his role as mentor and further nurtured his penchant for theatricality and the carefree lifestyle cultivated among the members of his circle. (7)
Voloshin, as my opening quote suggests, was not necessarily liked by everybody. He himself was just as "ugly" a poet as Dmitrieva was "an ugly poetess." (8) Even those who benefited from his hospitality--like the critic Kornei Chukovskii, who stayed in Koktebel' for an extended period of time in 1923--felt free to comment on his inability to listen to other people and his tendency to bore them to death with his stories. (9) People who truly loved his poetry or could effortlessly recite one or two of his poems were and are hard to come by. His most famous work is arguably "Dom poeta" (The House of a Poet, 1926), a long poem in which he celebrated his lasting relationship with his residence in Crimea.
His house, which all memoirists portrayed with admiration and affection, was the "accidental masterpiece" that ultimately qualified Voloshin for immortality. (10) "There are inexpressibly beautiful cockleshells that the famous Dr. Heckel exalted as inimitable works of art while in fact they were shaped by the natural sedimentation of organic life," Andrei Belyi wrote in 1933. "I admire Voloshin's house, from its outer forms to the museum remnants of this creative person's everyday life, the way I admire any of the cockleshells that enrapture us like the unique creations of [the great Attic sculptor] Praxiteles." (11) A few years earlier, a minor man of letters, Innokentii Basalaev, had compared Voloshin's house to a book: "I was reading this book with great surprise. It was written a long time ago but has survived until today.... It has one author and hero: a refined decadent, Montmartre poet, rebellious Russian student, 'Goetheanum' builder, camel-caravan leader in a Central Asian desert, bibliophile, artist, Hellene, Frenchman, and three-times Russian. No, I thought. This house, this dacha has to be tied to its place by an iron chain, like an ancient book; it has to be encased in glass and shown to the curious and wanderers." (12)
In fact, Voloshin had originally planned to settle in the Caucasus, and it was his mother who insisted on them both moving to "dusty Koktebel"' (Walker, 86). Although the house was built according to Voloshin's design, it was again his mother who was left to supervise its construction while Voloshin continued to live in Paris. After the deterioration of his marriage to Margarita Sabashnikova in 1907, Voloshin started to spend longer periods of time in Koktebel'. By the beginning of the 1910s, the house had become his primary residence, opening its doors every summer to such future luminaries as Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandel'shtam, and Vladislav Khodasevich. "An asthmatic never knows if he will be able to breathe, and he can be certain of nearly suffocating in a new home," Marcel Proust wrote explaining his reluctance to venture out of his apartment on Boulevard Haussmann. (13) We will never know whether it was Voloshin's asthma, or his growing attachment to Koktebel', or his desire to stay away from the politically explosive capitals that made him live in Koktebel' almost uninterruptedly from 1922 until his death in 1932.
"Voloshin's house is a plaster cast of his lively, beautiful human face; it is an eternally living memory of him; it cannot be replaced by any monuments," Belyi wrote a year after Voloshin's death .14 Belyi's commemorative essay was written at the suggestion of Voloshin's widow, Mariia Stepanovna Voloshina (noe Zabolotskaia, 1887-1976), who almost single-handedly, courageously, preserved the house, its unique library, the vast art collection, and her husband's archives for posterity. In 1933, both Belyi and Mariia Stepanovna hoped to turn Voloshin's house into a state museum. This did not happen, however, until 1974. The book O Makse, o Koktebele, o sebe tells the story of the 9 years that Mariia Stepanovna spent with Voloshin and of the more than 40 years that she was without him. The latter she devoted to the preservation of his memory and the dissemination and popularization of his poetry. Mariia Stepanovna adored her "Masen'ka" (her affectionate name for her husband) and was anxious for the reader to feel the same way. She was his loyal disciple, arguably his only one.
Like many widows of talented men of letters, Voloshina was often criticized by her contemporaries, including Anna Akhmatova, who could not forgive Voloshin his duel with her first husband, Nikolai Gumilev, and who would have liked Voloshin to spend the rest of his life in the company of a mediocre and petty woman--"a midwife," as she often referred to Voloshina. One of the memoirists recalled his visit to Voloshina in the 1960s, on one of the anniversaries of her husband's birth, during which she served him some stale candy. (15) However, these numerous anecdotes, as well as Voloshina's well-documented tantrums--she was not an easy person to deal with--have been eclipsed by her superhuman dedication to the house and her husband's archives before and during the German occupation of Crimea in World War II. When the threat of losing the house diminished, Voloshina fell seriously ill and was diagnosed with cancer. Prior to the operation, her thoughts were, as always, only of the house. Her own account of these difficult years is heartbreaking, particularly when she describes her ardent prayers to her late husband, asking him to protect her and the house, for there was no one else to help her.
For me, however, the most memorable portion of the book is Voloshina's essay "Maks v veshchakh" (Max [Seen] through His Possessions). In it, she lovingly sorts out Voloshin's numerous possessions, explaining their significance and usage, recalling various stories associated with this or that item, such as brushes, pins, pegs, scraps of paper, vases, glasses, rocks, dried flowers, photographs, paintings, and many more. She also offers a rationale for the general layout of each room, meticulously explaining its decorations and furnishings. Voloshin breathed life into his house, but it was Mariia Stepanovna who, week after week, gently blew away the dust of the years, keeping everything as it had been during Voloshin's lifetime.
"Was [Voloshin] really such a thoughtful fellow, or was he endowed with those qualities only in retrospect," Barbara Walker asks at one point (42). We will never know. One thing is certain: it is thanks to the efforts of dedicated students of Voloshin, such as the late Vladimir Kupchenko (who edited and prepared Mariia Stepanovna's memoirs for publication), Zakhar Davydov, Aleksandr Lavrov, Sergei Pinaev, Barbara Walker, and Andrei Osipov, to name but a few, that we keep getting closer to and at the same time inevitably farther away from understanding the "real" Voloshin.
(1) V. P. Kupchenko and Z. D. Davydov, eds., Vospominaniia o Maksimiliane Voloshine (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel', 1990), 145.
(2) See also Sergei Pinaev, Maksimilian Voloshin ili sebia zabyvshii bog (Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 2005).
(3) Kupchenko and Davydov, eds., Vospominaniia, 505.
(4) Ibid., 218.
(5) Ibid., 93.
(6) Although one appreciates the significance of Voloshin's thriftiness and the evident entrepreneurial skills that he allegedly demonstrated in obtaining a free train ticket while working in Turkestan in his youth (37-39), one would also like to see references to Voloshin's well-documented inability to control himself--e. g., his inability to resist the ice-cream parlors and deluxe seafood in Florence in 1900, where he was traveling with his friends on a shoestring budget, despite his initial resolution to economize (Sobranie sochinenii, 7, bk. 1: 62-63). Likewise, he could not resist a splurge in Bucharest on his honeymoon; this resulted in him and his wife traveling by sea third-class, which Margarita ultimately resented (Margarita Voloshina [M. V. Sabashnikova], Zelenaia zmeia [Die grune Schlange], trans. M. N. Zhemchuzhnikova [Moscow: Enigma, 1993], 141-42). This list could be extended. Voloshin's all-too-human inability to stick to his resolutions or, conversely, to control his emotions-as can be seen from his impulsive decision to interrupt his long-awaited Italian journey with his friends and go to Norway or Tashkent instead, simply because he had suddenly received an invitation to go there--may in part account for his popularity with the generation of the 1960s, just as Franz Kafka gained his popularity with the Czech intellectuals in the 1960s for his legendary inability to finish any of his novels and for his perpetual indecisiveness (Sobranie sochinenii, 7, bk. 1: 63, 64, 72).
(7) Remizov was born the same year as Voloshin and was at some point close to him and his wife Margarita Sabashnikova. Remizov founded his society of cheerful and talented people in the late 1900s. Not unlike Voloshin and Remizov, Kuindzhi (1842-1910) was famous for his eccentricities, such as his insistence on sleeping in a big nest in a tree while he resided in Crimea. He did not allow his students to paint while they were staying in his house and wanted them, above all, to feel rested and generally "inspired." Kuindzhi was a mentor of Voloshin's very close friend, the artist Konstantin Bogaevskii, and his behavior and his views were discussed by Voloshin in his diaries (see Sobranie sochinenii, 7, bk. 1: 279).
(8) See, for example, Sergei Makovskii's recollections of Voloshin in 1909 at the time when he embarked on his Cherubina project: "Physically, he looked exactly like a wood goblin out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Strong and massive (he weighed nearly 250 pounds), despite his short stature ..., he looked somewhat incongruous next to the other high priests of the muses in the Apollo editorial office, who were thin and physically underdeveloped" (Portrety sovremennikov [Moscow: Soglasie, 2000], 332). It was only natural that Voloshin had a duel with Nikolai Gumilev, another "ugly poet," who according to his contemporaries tried to compensate for his "ugliness" by his numerous amorous exploits.
(9) K. I. Chukovskii, Dnevnik 1901-1929 (Moscow: Olma-Press, 2003), 286-87.
(10) I borrow the term "accidental masterpiece" from Michael Kimmelman's The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).
(11) Kupchenko and Davydov, eds., Vospominaniia, 507.
(12) Ibid., 566.
(13) Proust is quoted in Diana Fuss, The Sense of an Interior (New York: Routledge, 2004), 191.
(14) Kupchenko and Davydov, eds., Vospominaniia, 508.
(15) Mikhail Ardov, Monografiia o grafomane: Vospominaniia (Moscow: Zakharov, 2004), 203-4.
Dept. of Germanic and Slavic Studies
University of Florida
263 Dauer Hall
Gainesville, FL 32611-7430 USA
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|Title Annotation:||Zhurnal puteshestviia: Dnevnik 1901-1903, Istoriia moei dushi; O Makse, o Koktebele, o sebe: Vospominaniia, Pis'ma; Maximilian Voloshin and the Russian Literary Circle: Culture and Survival in Revolutionary Times|
|Author:||Rylkova, Galina S.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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