Azary Messerer with Boris Messerer and his grandson (first row) and Boris’s son Alexander and his wife Anna (standing)
I’ll never forget a premiere at the Bolshoi Theater in 1963. I have heard that the new ballet Lieutenant Kizhe was too daring for the “academics” and that it could be shut down soon. It wasn’t surprising that the theater was packed that night. Sure enough, as soon as the curtain was lifted, there were gasps of surprise. The decorations and costumes were very bright, fantastic and formal. Their like had never been seen in the Bolshoi Theater. Boris, the artist, was still unknown, though everyone knew his father, the outstanding ballet dancer and teacher, Asaph Messerer. The audience applauded, caught up in it. After the end of the performance, there was an ovation for the creators – the audience didn’t want to leave, caught up in discussions about the scenery. I was told that Alexander Tyshler remarked, “Today a new artist was born”. And since Tyshler’s expertise was considered equal to Chagall’s, his opinion was more important than all the critics’, so I left the theater proud of my cousin.
After nearly half a century, Boris told me about some intrigue surrounding his debut at the Bolshoi, which had to do with the chief artist of the theater, Vadim Ryndin.
Boris Messerer: My father sympathized with my desire to work in theater, and so he decided to talk to Ryndin, whom he met frequently, while Ryndin’s wife, Galina Ulanova was a student of my father’s and a family friend. Ryndin agreed to look at my work, and I took my portfolio and went to the famous building at Kotelicheskaya Waterfront, where they lived on a very high floor. Ulanova happily chatted with me for a few minutes before Vadim Federovich came out. Their apartment wasn’t large, maybe three rooms, one of them was the master bedroom where he focused on his art. There were sketches, oils, and drawings done on paper – I liked them best of all. His knowledge of the stage was present in them.
Ryndin looked over my works and complimented them. They were the beginnings of theatrical sketches, as I had not yet had much experience and couldn’t create fully formed sketches. We parted friends. I treated him as you would a renowned artist; I was very familiar, of course, with his work in the famous Tairov Chamber Theater – his magnificent sketches. Truthfully, in our youth theater circles, we did not enthusiastically receive his later work: he frequently used traditional Soviet themes, like Gorky’s “Mother”, and we criticized Socialist Realism.
Soon after our meeting, the Bolshoi Theater went on tour to America for three months; Ulanova participated, and Ryndin, and the head ballet master Leonid Lavrovsky. After about two weeks, completely unexpectedly, Raisa Struchkova called me and said: “Boris, we’re looking out for your theatrical experience at the Contemporary Theater, we should meet”. Struchkova’s husband, Alexander Lapauri, was very energetic, and, I would say, a tough man. Unfortunately, he died young in an automobile catastrophe. It turns out that Lapauri, Raisa Struchkova, and Olga Tarasova were planning on producing a new ballet while the main troupe was abroad. It has to be said that creating ballets was very difficult at the time – the theater was very conservative. All the same, they decided to stage a ballet to the music Prokofiev wrote for the film “Lieutenant Kizhe” – the wonderful story by Yuri Tynyanov. Very talented people helped write the libretto: Alexander Veitsler and Alexander Misharin, and they invited me as an artist.
I was delighted with this project, and threw myself into making sketches. They were in a rush to finish everything without publicity before the main troupe returned. In place of Leonid Lavrovsky there was Olga Lepeshinskaya, with whom they had a great relationship, and so everything went by quickly indeed.
At some point in conversation with them I suggested a clever solution. Even today, I still think it to be clever – rather than drawing a concrete place for the setting, say, a palace, or a battlefield, it would have been better to draw several large figures in a primitive style that looked somewhat like Lezhe, which would have conveyed the exact atmosphere of the performance. For instance, suppose during the wedding scene we had a brocade background and on it arouse a black silhouette of a maid of honor done in velvet, hand in hand with Kizhe, who was not a lieutenant, but already a general. If it was a parade, then there would appear a picture of Pavel I on a horse, done in the naïve popular style. If it was a palace, then the audience would see a huge red window, flanked by soldiers standing guard with rifles. If it was a war scene, then the gun shots were painted as ornamental flowers. One of the main protagonists was a goose feather quill, for which I came up with a rather abstract costume – a graphic print leotard. It was probably the first abstract suit in the USSR. The feather would rise up, and turn into a ballerina on pointe.
The layout was prepared just in time for the return of the American company. I met my first wife, Nina Chistov, soloist of the Bolshoi, at the airport and spoke to Ryndin. I tactfully told him: “Vadim Fedorovich, there was an unexpected situation – I was asked to do the design for the ballet.” He was not pleased with the news; how was it possible to do it without him? It was clear how unpleasant it was for him to hear this.
Just a day after their return, I presented my design. Ryndin, Lavrovskii, Lepeshinskaya, Struchkova, Lapauri, Tarasova and a few others came. Ryndin criticized the layout harshly, but still spoke to me kindly. He said that my pieces were too big – they wouldn’t be visible from above, from the gallery, and so they had to be halved. He knew that making them smaller was completely impossible. If it is impossible to see from the gallery, I thought angrily, then they’d have to buy more expensive tickets. Especially since I had checked and everything was visible from the gallery. I nodded along with what he said, but didn’t fix anything. He did not have any other problems with it, and so the time was right to begin preparing for the ballet.
And so began the set building at the Bolshoi: we hung these huge backdrops. I was agitated, and walked about on stage. Ryndin showed up unexpectedly, along with Lapauri, who had the worst role in this business: trying to get the chief artist on his side. He told him that Messerer wasn’t listening to him, and as a consequence was messing up. Ryndin saw the set figures and began to yell at me like crazy, in the presence of the stage set workers. I was not a child, indeed, I was around thirty years old, but he shouted, “You, boy, dare? I told you that you need to make these figures half their size. They’re ugly. It will not do, and alterations will be at your expense!” He sounded hysterical, and his jaw, complete with his false teeth, continued to move up and down at me. I kept calm because I was sure I was right and he was wrong. The set workers were discussing among themselves whether to raise or drop a fence, and so fortunately paid no attention to his yelling. After all, in theater everyone is quite used to shouting.
Meanwhile, the team received no command from the administration to stop preparing the ballet. At rehearsal, the lights dimmed, and the dancers played their parts. I sat in the hall, completely overwhelmed. During intermission, I stood alone in the central aisle when suddenly Ryndin came up to me and said, “Boris, forgive me. I was wrong. The performance will be good.” The offense was in the fact that he shouted in front of everyone, but apologized in private where no one else heard. The show was a huge success. And I bore no ill will towards Ryndin, I could understand his confusion: after all, it had only been a short time before that I had come before him as a student, still a beginner, and then suddenly I showed such zeal.
Boris’ path to the heights of set design was far from easy, despite the family’s tradition of theater. He began to draw at an early age, and his mother, painter Anel Sudakevich very carefully guided and encouraged him. But then he, like many prodigies, lost interest in drawing. It upset Anel, but she did not try to force her son – she knew that if it was genuine talent, it would manifest itself again sooner or later.
Anel Sudakevich was one of the most beautiful and charming women whom I have ever met in my life. I adored her, as, indeed, I adored all her close relatives and friends. In her youth she was a silent film star, and even merited a visit when Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks came to the Soviet Union. Famous personalities, such as Vladimir Mayakovsky fell in love with her, says Asaf Messerer with humor in his memoirs. One day the poet bought hundreds of postcards with Sudakevich in various roles on the front and distributed them to all he met. With her aristocratic appearance: chiseled profile, straight nose, and high cheek bones, she naturally and convincingly played princesses and queens.
Boris Messerer with his mother Anel Sudakevich and Azary Messerer
After that, when movies got sound, she spent a long time in small roles, such as the Polish court lady in Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible”. The trouble was that in the 30s movies were primarily about the collective farm theme, and the main roles were milkmaids and tractor drivers. It did not fit her. Anel decided to change her career – she began to study painting. She took her place among the first female artists and seriously worked in fashion, although at the time it could have been called “antifashion”: cheap, affordable, consumer goods… Her first steps in the Russia fashion market are marked by the manufacture of unique costumes for famous actresses in film and stage, like Claudia Shulzehenko, for instance.
From costumes, Anel went on to design theatrical productions, including Mayakovsky’s “The Bedbug” at Pluchek’s Theater, and eventually linked her artistic destiny with the circus. As the Chief Artist of the Moscow Circus, she was the author of numerous original creations, including clown Oleg Popov’s world famous plaid cap.
Anel lived in a famous house on Nemirovich Danchenko Street, now Blagoveschensky Lane, where you can see at least a dozen plaques. Who hasn’t lived there? Moskvin and Olga Knipper, Tarasova, and Nemirovich-Danchenko himself… Whenever I came to see Anel, she always had a festively laid table, because at any moment her neighbors could easily come by, of whom I particularly remember Sergey Obraztsov and Osip Abdulov. On the walls there were gorgeous portraits of Anel from the brushes of Arthur Fonvizin and Andrei Goncharov.
You have, of course, Anel’s exact taste and hospitality, but how did Asaf influence you?
– He had a very large influence. He was truly a model of male behavior, and his huge successes in the artistic sphere and the reverence that surrounds it, of course, influenced me. I liked that he was definitely admired by all actors, including Alik, who I grew up and was friends with. (After the arrest of Rahil Messerer in 1938 Asaf and Anel adopted her son, the future Bolshoi Theater soloist and choreographer Alexander Plisetsky. Alik and Boris were the same age – A.M.) He was exalted, but remained shy, behaved with dignity, and never exaggerated himself. I appreciated his low-key manner, which became a source of pride for me.
Over time, Anel raised her son to enter the circle of her friends – artists, when he finally decided to become an architect, which required serious painting classes. In his third year at the Architectural Institute, Boris became interested in watercolor and became a frequent visitor at the studio of the watercolor virtuoso Fonvizin. As he drew his portraits of young dancers and artists, the master allowed Boris to draw even his student portraits beside him. Many years later, Boris decided to present the most successful portraits of his former models. So, at the Gala in honor of the birthday of the outstanding ballerina and ballet master Natalia Kasatkina, he presented with a painting of her from 40 years ago. On stage, Kasatkina saw her youthful portrait… and burst into tears.
At the Architectural Institute, you studied painting with the strict master Alexander Deineka and worked in the studio of the refined portraitist Fonvizin. What have you learned from them?
– In general, I believe that lessons themselves do not mean much, since teaching painting is impossible, but to teach an artist it is imperative that they are in an environment surrounded by other people who also paint. Jealous feelings can appear – someone already draws well, and someone else not so good. Becoming an artist is finding a way to live in general; developing skills for that life, you perceive the value of art, artistic ideas are always present in your mind the way they aren’t in, say, people who are technically educated. Of course, everyone has to find their master, who will serve as their example. I chose senior maestro Alexander Tyshler. I admired his art – and his life. I often went to visit him. His apartment on Maslovka Street had a wonderful interior: there were small mahogany cabinets with sculptures – bronze candelabras in the form of figures with candles on their heads. In general, he liked to draw fantasy, with ships or cakes or whole castles on the heads of women. That was his style. His candelabras were very memorable and reflected his artistic outlook. He had a dacha which had an amazing interior. The small house was completely empty inside, without inner walls – a cube, with one window per side, and a stove in the middle. On every window there was a small, almost toy-like, stool, which he made, each about 25 centimeters tall, and on them were pots of geraniums. From the outside, they looked funny, and it was still funny from the inside, and a joy to see the flowers on legs.
The best interiors, to Boris, were the ones that reminded him of his beloved artist, Tyshler, and his style. Walking in, one is involuntarily reminded of the poetry penned by Boris Alexander Kushner. Here are a few of his lines:
In Messerer there is something of Matisse –
He loves interiors so much
But at the same time fancies the scenes
And theatrical brilliance of a large premier
Tischler and Messerer found common interest not only in interior and theatrical decorations, but also in the love of poetry and architecture. Their work is distinguished by a striking diversity: stage design, easel paintings and drawings, landscapes, still lifes, sculptures, and Boris even had installations. They had a lot of male charm, so women liked them. But most importantly they shared an inherent courage, independence, and self-sufficiency: instead of following the traditional canons, they only trusted their own intuition and fantasy.
Sometimes, they, along with others, fled from Soviet criticism, referring to the natural theatrical exaggeration and phantasmagoria. It is said that during a visit to the historical exhibition at the Manezh in 1962, Nikita Khrushchev, pointing a finger at Tischler’s portrait of a woman with a castle on her head, shouted: “What is that?” Someone timidly replied: “It’s theater”, which unexpectedly calmed the angry party connoisseur of painting, and he moved on to smash the other “nontheatrical” artists.
Boris, at least indirectly, owed his career in theater to Khrushchev, as he was obligated to drop his architectural pursuits because of him. A lot of people were leaving architecture at the time, who thought that putting up “Khrushchev slums” everywhere was uninteresting. Of course, it was no secret how many people needed apartments, but did they all have to have the same layout? In theater, Boris could apply his architectural knowledge and show his gift for spatial vision. On the other hand, he was attracted by the prospect of taking part in the creation of new, “contemporary” theater, which brought together a group of talented young artists and writers from the 60s. Inspired by new trends of Khruschev’s Thaw they were ready to challenge the rigid clichés of the Stalinist era.
Skomorichs by Boris Messerer
You designed more than 150 productions, working with many prominent directors, both Russian and foreign. The longest and most fruitful collaboration was between you and Oleg Efremov. I know that you had some difficulties working together, despite the many years of friendship and partnership…
-Yes, my relationship with Efremov was difficult. The theater “Contemporary”, in spite of the title, at first did not have modern artistic principles, they simply revived the Moscow Art theater’s aesthetic and tried to perform in a fresh manner, without pressure, without defining characteristics. I dreamed of a truly modern theater, more similar to the Tairov’s style than the Stanislavsky’s one. Of course, at first even I myself did not know how to do it. We were often at odds with Efremov, especially in plays such as Cyrano de Bergerac. I made very unconventional scenery for it, with flat back drop, on which were drawn maps of military operations. Efremov did not like it because he envisioned a purely everyday play. Well, we fought, then reconciled. Our most successful performance was The Assignment by Alexander Volodin. The play was very delicate, and it was performed beautifully. Generally, we, along with Bella (Akhmadullina – A.M.), had a great friendship with Volodin. At his request, I even illustrated a collection of his plays. So, in The Assignment there was almost nothing on stage, only symbolic details, which more or less started a new aesthetic movement. When, for instance, employee came to work, they came through the door, slamming it. Once they all entered, the door bent over and became a meeting table covered in green cloth with a decanter, so it gave off the impression of an official government office, in which sat the chief, perfectly played by Evgeny Evstigneev. The employees all gathered and sat down in their places, and suddenly, from behind the stage came tables, facing the audience. In general, we developed, I would say, an elegant, dynamic solution which kept the feeling of a farce.
Even after he transitioned away from the Contemporary Theater to the Moscow Art Theater, Oleg occasionally invited me to create the scenes for a play. In the Moscow Art Theater (MAT), we still desperately argued, disagreed, and agreed, but several performances became quite successful, such as The Prince and the Pauper in a branch of the MAT and Sweet Bird of Youth starring Angelina Stepanova, a MAT celebrity. And when the MAT was divided into two theaters, Efremov called me into the Club of Writers and with a glass of vodka asked me to become the chief artist of the new MAT named after Chekhov. There we’ve put together giant performances, with a lot of costumes like Boris Godunov and Woe from Wit – a very big job. Along with those were such diverse productions as The Comedians by Vladimir Arro, Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen directed by Nikolai Skorik, The Milk Van No Longer Stops by Tennessee Williams, and many others. The work of a chief artist is, of course, interesting, but very time-consuming – you spend a lot of time organizing, participating in numerous rehearsals, meetings, and defending your ideas in a dispute with the directors.
We have to pay tribute to Efremov, as many years later he admitted that while your original ideas, “sometimes conflict with traditional theatrical techniques, they always come from great art, and therefore are always good.” But your most famous work is Carmen, staged at the Bolshoi Theater and then reproduced in dozens of theaters throughout Russia, Western Europe, America and Japan…
– In 1967 the Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso arrived in Moscow to choreograph a single number for Maya (Maya Plisetskaya, Boris’ cousin – A.M.). They began to dream about the theme of Carmen and their ideas got Rodion Shchedrin interested. He was quickly enlisted and wrote the music – a paraphrase of Bizet’s opera. When we all sat in the theater listening to this monumental and expressive music, everyone realized that just a single number wasn’t enough – there had to be a full ballet. That was when they invited me, and I began to work with Alberto. He didn’t speak Russian then, and his English was also very poor. My English wasn’t much better. So, I had to draw everything out for him on paper and communicate with symbols. For example, the idea of cross-dialogue: Jose and Carmen are dancing in unison with the bullfighter, danced with the bull, who symbolized fate, and then suddenly they switch partners – Jose dances with the bull, and Carmen with the bullfighter. I told him, “Ionesco” (French playwright Eugène Ionesco, one of the creators of the theater of the absurd – A.M.), and he understood me. There was a curious duality underlying the whole play: everything that happened had a double meaning. Take the 12 stage dancers, representing the people, who later turn to judges. I suggested that the judges climb to the top of the arena, which was built of semicircular boards, like in bullfighting, and sit in high chairs that I created in the Spanish style.
The poster for the ballet Carmen, with a bull’s head seen from the back, hangs in Boris’ studio on Povarskaya Street. The studio became legendary: it was described by the best poetry and prose writers and the best generation of artists – those from the 60s. According to Vasily Aksenov, “its importance for artistic Moscow can be compared to the importance of ‘Stray Dog Tavern’ in the life of pre- revolution Petersburg”. Concerts were organized here featuring Vysotsky and Okudzhava, famous writers came here, including Arthur Miller and Henry Bell, Andrei Bitov and Vladimir Voinovich and filmmakers Otar Iosseliani, Sergei Parajanov, Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, and, of course, the full cast of the first uncensored version of a magazine in the USSR – Metropol. Boris was the artist of the almanac, and its symbol became a phonograph, one of the four that, at all times, decorated the studio among many other ancient objects: irons, samovars, candlesticks…. Yevgeny Rein even described in verse all the original subjects of this unique interior. And Bella Akhmadulina compared herself with Boris’ gramophones in the poem “House”:
Carmen set design by Boris Messerer
I am their kin,
dying of tenderness, when I walk in
I bend my neck just so
And keep my head – so.
I, like them, am ornate
and neck exposed, open
keep the sound of an immemorial waltz
saved in my voice.
A lump rises in your throat when you hear the recording of her amazing voice, especially when reading the last lines of the poem, dedicated to Boris:
Still alive, still loved
All of this is given to me now,
Though it seems that it has been
And gone a long time ago.
In the studio on Povarskaya Street, even now everything reminds one of Bella, but the most tangible of the reminders is present on many of her portraits, done by Boris in the 36 years of their lives together. I know that he is currently writing his memoirs and asked that he tell at least one story, that could be put into this book. Boris warns: “only without holy oil”.
Boris Messerer and his wife Bella Akhmadulina
– Our coexistence was closer to a battle of characters. We came together in many ways because we had an amazing overlap of evaluations and tastes in works of art, literature, and in our dealings with people. In all our time, we never had any differences in the main things. But on things on the home front, we quarreled endlessly, and I jokingly named our existence the “30 Years War”. Even though we could behave antagonistically, we actually felt a great spiritual affinity. I collected everything that had anything to do with her work, doing it, as it were, implicitly, intuitively. It all began purely by accident at the start of our life together, before the marriage, when we had just fallen in love. The first we stayed without a break in my shop together, no one had our phone numbers – no one knew of our love. Then Bella gave her number to her housekeeper and a few close friends. Suddenly, some mad collector called from the city Tambov, really a total maniac, which, it turned out, wasn’t unusual among real collectors. It turned out that Bella once promised him a manuscript, and he came to get it at my studio. I was sure that it was simply about one or two poems, and didn’t think anything of it. But then I discovered that she had a cherished notebook, called “Ledger” in a rough, gray, primitive cover. A white square was glued onto the cover, on which was written, “Bella Akhmadulina”. The notebook had accumulated all of her poems from her mature period up to 1974, written, for some reason, in red ink. The guy claimed precisely this precious book, and Bella, because she didn’t attach any importance to her work, said, “Yes, take it”. I had no moral right to say no, because he just would have asked me right to my face, “who are you?” Yes, and Bella would be surprised. Still, something in me just rebelled. I said, “You know what, I can’t give you this book.” Bella looked at me with surprise, and he, who hated so easily, replied, “how cant that be, since she promised me this book as a gift?” But I stood my ground, and told him, “No. I will not give it.” We both clutched at it and tore it in half. I got angry and told him to get out, but the battle was lost by half. Then I was unspeakably sorry that I did not leave myself the whole book in its entirety. To give part of it away was, on my part, a crime, and on her part – a frivolity. We never saw this guy again. Another thing that I learned from that experience was that I needed to protect everything that she ever wrote from herself. At the time, the studio didn’t even have shelves – the artistic environment was not conducive to collecting. I started three bags: one – for the most precious relics and letters. The second was for things of intermediate grade, and finally, the third – for simpler verses, drafts, and other things. These bags matured, matured, and finally were put in file folders. In those days, copiers did not exist – the reproduction of any materials was banned, and much was lost. Clearly, it was necessary to carefully, carefully collect all that she had, and it formed a veritable archive over the years. I am personally particularly impressed by her dedication. She rarely repeated herself in them, always found something original, and questioned the people to whom she wrote the dedication. In the clubs, for example, many people who we did not know personally, who, as a rule, were fans of her talent, wanted to talk to her and receive something for posterity – an autograph, a message she wrote in a book that they brought. Bella also wrote very uninhibited, improvised poems. When it came time to put together a complete collection of her works, I had to ask for copies from the people she wrote them to, or simply rewrote them myself. People often agreed, but first I had to remember, who she wrote poems to and when, as it was often many years ago. I saved quite a lot of those poems. Some, one might say, are even remarkable – masterful, even, because they were written freely without any censorship or editorial changes. I still do not know the people that she wrote them for. For example, the inscription for some Lyudmila Chernova is wonderful, but I have no idea who she is.
At the end of her life, quite late, I started recording her stories and poetry on a recorder. Her eyes gave her trouble – she couldn’t read or write, but she continued to create poems until her final days. I should have started doing that sooner, of course, but it never seemed to work out because I was so busy. And I couldn’t quite bring myself to become another one of those maniac collectors. In truth, I was a participant in her life, not just a spectator form the sidelines. If there was a celebration, I drank toasts with her, and gave some myself; I couldn’t record things at that time. Yes, much has been collected, but rather against her will in the course of our battles.
Boris, with the light hand of Andrei Bitov began to be called the “King of Bohemian Moscow”. But in his orphaned apartment there is perfect order. I was always amazed at the combination of wild imagination and domestic organization. In the study, on several shelves, there is a neat row of folders with dozens of filings with clear inscriptions on the spines: “Poems 1978”, “Prose 1979”, “Correspondence with Arthur Miller”, “Correspondence with Joseph Brodsky”, etc. Several folders are devoted to poetry and prose written in Tarusa. For many years Boris rented houses or apartments, “in places sad and lovely, in Tarusa and its surroundings,” as Bella wrote once. The first time he took her to Tarusa, it was the late 70s when Bella was in disgrace: they never printer her poems after her work with Metropol and her statements in defense of academic Andrei Sakharov; she wasn’t invited to speak on TV screens or in auditorium halls. And Boris realized that only privacy and nature could revive her mental strength enough to help alleviate the hardships of Soviet persecution. Tarusa became, for Bella, something like Pushkin’s Boldino. There she wrote her best work, in her opinion: the series of verses called “101st km”, dedicated in her wonderful way to the people she met 101 km from Moscow, which was the point in Stalinist time, beyond which you could live no closer to the city itself after you had been jailed. The product of their joint work in Tarusa was a beautiful book, containing more than 100 watercolors, including landscapes, by Boris, and of course Bella’s poems, stunningly rewritten by hand. Their monument to Tsvetaeva is no less important to Russian culture. Indisputably, they loved these places all the more because they preserved Tsvetaeva’s memory – Marina Ivanovna lived there as a child, and two years before her death. Tsvetaeva’s image hovered over Boris and Bella. Bella wrote: “all of a sudden, and for no apparent reason, on my lashes – a tear for Marina”. Once they thought that it would be nice to put a monument to Tsvetaeva on the high bank of the Oka. The goal proved to be elusive; there were a lot of obstacles.
How did you overcome all of them?
– Firstly, the city did not have the money for a monument, and so we spent a long time looking for a sponsor. Finally, a businessman named Leonid Mamoud agreed to give us the money. Then the battle to find a place began. I always thought that the Tsvetaeva monument should be placed over the cliff, near the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. There are stunning views of the Oka River there. Later, that area became overgrown with trees, which was a strange contradiction of Russian nature. Ten years ago, there was still a clearing, and I painted landscapes there. Anyway, I knew this sacred place, and as a patriot Tarusa was very excited about it. I found a wonderful sculptor, Vladimir Soskiev, who received, among other things, the second prize in the design competition of the monument to Joseph Brodsky who at one time was hiding from arrest in Tarusa. Soskiev liked our idea, but a competitor arrived seemingly out of nowhere. This person, who also wanted to build the monument, claimed that it should be placed where Marina wanted to be buried. But there was already a Tarusa dolomite stone there with the inscription: “Marina Tsvetaeva would like to be buried here” – a modest stone, as Marina wanted. Then the local demagogues wrote a horrible letter, where they said that our choice of construction site was totally wrong, because apart from everything else, Tsvetaeva committed suicide, and to put her monument next to a church shouldn’t be allowed; it would be better to take down the monument to General Efremov on the Path of Fame. During our tedious dispute I had to remind them that General Efremov, born in Tarusa, to whose memory I bow my head, because of terrible circumstances was also a suicide and shot himself to avoid being captured by Germans. Therefore he should have also been, according to them, an unsuitable figure. In the end, we won. Fortunately, the mayor was on our side, having heeded the argument that the monument would change the face of the city. Incidentally, I believe that if we had lost, the spot would have become a dazzling casino, which would have killed Tarusa. The monument was very nice, modest, and expressive. When they cut down the old trees, a marvelous panorama opened up. Sunlight came through on both sides. Still working on an architectural project, I took into account that if you put the monument facing the river, people who went to see the monument would see it from the back. If we put it with its back to the Oka, then only the back would be visible from the ships. So I decided to put it across from the main avenue, so that three quarters of it was seen from any point. Now all the tours in Tarusa start there at the monument – the townspeople and the visitors love it.
At the opening of the monument, Bella Akhmadulina read the famous Tsvetaeva’s lines: “My poems, like precious wines, / their turn will come.” I came to Tarusa to familiarize myself with the monument. I spent a long time on the hillside on the bank of the Oka gazing at the statue, and it seemed to me that Tsvetaeva, barefoot, alive, was going from the river to her Peschanaya Dacha, and on the way was picking strawberries near the cemetery (“Cemetery strawberries / none tastier or sweeter”).
Now Boris feels very lonely. His seven grandchildren save him, and a great-grandson recently appeared. His granddaughter Anna is already a ballerina at the Kremlin Theater and his grandson Boris is a child prodigy in painting. Boris proudly showed me his drawings and joked that he couldn’t help his grandson learn to paint because he already painted better than his grandfather ever did.
Boris wakes up very early – Guidon wakes him up at half past six. First the dog peeks under the blanket to see if Boris is awake. And then just make sure his owner is awake, joyfully jumps onto the bed, pokes him with his head, growls, barks, and then drags Boris out. Guidon belongs to a noble and very wrinkled breed: he’s a Chinese Shar Pei, which were bred for more than 3,000 years for the Chinese emperors. Guidoshe, as Boris calls him, has poetry dedicated to him, which hangs like a picture in a frame on the wall. During a walk in the park with Guidon, near Leningradsky Prospect, Boris told me about how these verses were written:
– In 2003 I participated in the Prague Quadrennial (a prestigious art exhibition held every four years, where Boris’ installation won a silver medal – A.M.), I saw a poet in the Chinese Pavilion who was taking commissions and writing poems on any subject proposed, all while using beautiful ink characters to write it. Visitors were mostly asking him to write poems about their loved ones, but I asked for a poem about the Shar Pei, who was saved from destruction as a bourgeois relic on the orders of Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution. Then a handful of Shar Pei “dissidents” were secretly taken out of the country and sent to Taiwan. But now they are popular all over the world and a beautiful representative of them lives in our house. So this Chinese improviser wrote me a poem about Guidon. Bella and I had many dogs over our 36 years, but she loved Guidoshe the most.
Boris was a sad and aging man when we parted in the spring of 2011. But I had often remembered him young and happy, as he was on that sunny July day in 1961, when I was filming him with an 8 mm video camera. In those frames, he goes, with his springy gait, through the ancient streets of Riga with an easel under his arm, choosing the right angle to paint a future landscape from. We heard the sound of a chorus from the nearby Duomo Cathedral. I don’t remember what the choir sang, but now I hear the marvelous melody of “Miserere” by composer Gregorio Allegri, who lived during the Renaissance. I loved the music even before Joseph Brodsky rhymed its name with ours. Here is what he wrote in memory of his friend Boris:
When I think of Boris,
of Boris, of his spirit –
when I think in the USA
of lovely Boris Messerer,
my soul is besieged,
as a sinner sinfully upset
at the first sound of MISERERE.
By Azary Messerer
Translated by Anna Patricia Billiard
Edited by Boris Pevzner