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Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat

By Ann Komaromi

The Electronic Archive “Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat” (PSDS) includes the database of Soviet samizdat periodicals, electronic editions of selected samizdat journals, illustrated timelines of dissident movements, and interviews with activists. The Project aims to make rare materials more widely available and to provoke questions about the trajectories of groups and individuals within the varied field of Soviet dissidence and nonconformist culture.

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Lev Mnukhin

Interview with Lev Mnukhin

By Ann Komaromi.

Interview date: 3 November 2007.
Place: Paris, 75015
Transcript and translation: Anastassia Kostrioukova
Editing: Ann Komaromi
Published: August 2014

AK -    Lev Abramovich […] where were you were born and when?

LM -    I was born in Moscow on April 9th, 1938, into a family of workers. My father was a mechanic, my mother - a typist. I studied in an ordinary school. I graduated from school with a silver medal, which allowed me, despite being a young man with a problematic fifth paragraph (that is “Lev Abramovich,”[1] which meant problems with admission) to nevertheless overcome this barrier. At that time there was a percentage of those who were accepted and those who were not; but the medal allowed me to enter the competition among medalists, and I was admitted into the Moscow Power Engineering Institute.

Upon graduating from the Institute I was assigned to project organization. That was 1961, and practically from 1961 or 1962, besides the technical work, I started to take interest in literature and art, to go to exhibits, and I gathered around myself a group of people who pulled me into all this. The first work that I read after graduating of those that had served me as guides was People, Years, Lives by Erenburg. There was a mass of last names, and I wanted to know what these names were, who these artists were. Who was Pasternak, who was Tsvetaeva…

AK -    But didn’t you know at least the names?

LM -    The names, yes, I had only heard of them and not all of them by a long shot. And there were no books. In fact, just in 1961 the first two little anthologies of Tsevtaeva and Pasternak had appeared. I could get them only a year later. Everything developed somehow gradually, but I immediately collected artists. If I liked an artist, then I tried to find large format albums; I had small albums for mediocre artists. There was a shop called “Friendship” (”Дружба”), where some foreign publications were available. Of course, they did not have Dali, de Chirico, Delvaux, or Magritte, but there were some classics. There were some Renaissance artists, some Impressionists. It was possible to choose.

In 1967, I took my vacation in the fall (at work, you get your vacation one year during the summer and the next during the fall, so that it alternates each year). In the fall, I ended up in the resort by myself. It was boring, the weather was terrible, there was nothing interesting to do - you couldn't swim, or hike in the forest. So I went to the library and began to read all of the current magazines - New World (Новый Мир), Moscow (Москва), The Star (Звезда) - the so-called “thick journals.” Then I came across the prose of Tsvetaeva: A Captive Spirit (Пленный Дух) about Andrei Belyi and The House of Old Pimen (Дом у старого Пимена). I was simply astounded and overwhelmed by her creative work. I barely knew her poetry at that time, even though I had a collection of her poems (like other book lovers I tried to obtain books of that kind).

I returned home from my vacation and began to search for and collect everything I could in order to read and learn about Tsvetaeva. Gradually this turned into a desire to collect as much as possible and know as much as possible. Because I am technically trained, my approach was technical: compiling a bibliography and an address book of Tsvetaeva. So this was not literary research work but closer to historical and bibliographical work. That was easier for me because of my technical education. 

AK -    You were saying that this partly fits with the spirit of the age of what we might call “Physics and Lyrics.”[2] I want to ask whether you had friends who also became taken by literature?

LM -    Very many. For example, my acquaintance from St. Petersburg, Katia Lubiannikova, was working and is still working on Tsvetaeva. She was my coworker for many years: she is a programmer, and a physicist by profession. There was another physicist who was working on Mandelshtam, Sergei Vasilenko, who is currently one of the biggest specialists in Mandelshtam. Also, there was a geologist working on Mandelshtam, Pavel Nerler, a chairman of the Mandelshtam Society. An engineer named Boris Miagkov worked on Akhmatova, and a chemist, Anatolii Ivanov, specialized in Sasha Chernyi.

The thing is, working in a technical field allows one to work in a regular way in a laboratory, to work on interesting problems, and to receive a decent salary. It also allows you not to worry about studying the literature on which you want to work and which feels close to you. As a literary scholar, no one would allow me to specialize officially in Tsvetaeva. In order to survive I would need to specialize in something else.

Why was there such a wave of physicists? Because they were free in this sense. And of course, it was one of the defining aspects of the era - the intelligentsia’s longing for real literature and art (not socialist, of course). One had to think about it, and then one realized that poets and writers were not allowed to publish what they wanted, for example, the material that later became Metropol.[3]

My collection of things to do with Tsvetaeva was growing; there were many interesting materials, but then what? It was obvious that I should not keep it all for myself. It was necessary to tell about it, and to show it. Through the society “Knowledge” (Знание) and through the Society of Booklovers (Общество книголюбов) I toured with lectures. They were not called “About Tsvetaeva” - lectures with such a title were not acceptable. (I still have a project plan for lectures from the 1970s where Tsvetaeva and Mikhail Bulgakov were crossed out.) Well, you could talk about the 19th century if you liked. You could talk about Konstantin Simonov or Tvardovskii- any of the official writers and officially approved by the government. I could not advertise my topic. And then I thought of a way to do it: I proposed to talk about editions, for example “Rare Editions of the Silver Age” or “Life and Fate of the Books of Russian Poets,” without mentioning whom specifically I would talk about. It could be Blok and Esenin, or it could be Mandelshtam, or Tsvetaeva. And by the time I was already giving the lecture, I could talk about anything that I considered important. 

AK -    I see. Were these lectures delivered during the meetings of the “Society of Booklovers”?

LM -    “The Society of Booklovers” gave directions to the organizations. I did these readings in schools and institutes. Quite often they were in research institutes, which generated the largest amount of requests. In Alma-Ata I gave a lecture in an observatory, in the public library and in one of the factories. In Odessa – in the House of Scholars. And in Petersburg (then Leningrad) in the House of Scholars.

So in this way I was allowed to give lectures. For example, I would go to Kiev and give five to six lectures, sometimes two to three per day. During the day they would be held in a school or a library, in the evening – in a big hall of some institute.

It was a sort of a spiritual outlet me. First of all, there were new acquaintances. Secondly, I had to expand continuously the content of my stories, talk about new materials in order to not repeat myself. Simultaneously, my knowledge of the subject improved. 

AK -    How was it organized? Since your education was technical, how was it possible for you to be invited to these places? Were you welcomed there because of your subject?

LM -    I think that first of all, the organizers were enticed by the subject which seemed on the one hand so innocent and was on the other hand one for which people would turn out. And there were no conditions to the terms on which they received me. For the group “Knowledge,” I could speak on an engineering topic. But I would talk about some rare publications, as a booklover. Of course, for my part I did everything very carefully. I understood that if I were to abuse my opportunity to talk, to speak to an unfamiliar audience about extremely touchy literary and political problems, I could harm myself, and subsequently not be able to study my favourite poet.

I think that there was some checking up on my activities. I remember that in one of Moscow’s clubs, where I was giving one of my first lectures at the Society of Booklovers, there were some suspicious people. They did not look deeply into the heart of the matter, but they needed to hear whether there was anything anti-Soviet being said, and to see who came to such evenings. I talked about the creative work of Tsvetaeva and I talked about her books. Naturally, in the context of her biography, I mentioned that her husband was repressed, and that her daughter was arrested right in front of the mother’s eyes. Of course, these tragic events did not compose the whole lecture, but not to mention it would be impossible.

I continued to collect everything that was related to Tsvetaeva, to her family and to her surroundings. Just like the little boys who collect stamps and coins, I wanted to have at home all the magazines, all the publications, everything that was out there.

The magazines came in from Georgia, Armenia, and the Far East. In the central part of USSR Tsvetaeva was hardly published. It did not get through there. But it did get through in the remote regions.

To this day I still keep magazines from the 1960s and 1970s like Literary Armenia with “A Living Word about A Living Man” (Живое о живом) by Tsvetaeva, Literary Georgia with “An Otherwordly Evening” (Нездешний вечер) and others. I even managed to preserve off-prints (or proofs) of several publications devoted to Tsvetaeva from that time that did not actually get published. At the last minute the material would be withdrawn from the journal or the collected volume.

AK -    When did you start collecting?

LM -    After I came back from the holidays, being under the impression of Tsvetaeva. That was in 1967. That year I was already collecting at full speed, learning, going to used book shops and libraries. I tried to catch all the new magazines that were coming out. For example, the memoirs of Libedinskaia were published, called The Green Lamp, and there was a small chapter about Tsvetaeva. So I get this book, then I find the telephone number of Lydia Borisovna, call, explain the reason, arrange a meeting and go to her place. She signs the book for me while I record everything she says, trying to catch what was not included in the book.

Or later, I met with Natalia Konchalovskaia, the wife of Sergei Mihalkov, who also published a small chapter about Tsvetaeva, because she saw her in 1941. So I go to her place, ask her to sign the book, and at the same time ask her what she could share with me. To be honest, most of the time memoirists said very little in addition to what was written in the book. Some meetings would grow into friendly relationships that would last for many years. For example, Libedinskaia helped me many times: sometimes she would write a variation of her memoirs especially for me, or she would help me get a certain book. The writers had their own bookstore at the Writer’s Union. They could go there, and get a book for me which no one else could buy.

Whether intended or not, there began to form a little museum at my apartment – a museum of Tsvetaeva at home. I started to invite my friends or those came from other cities or even other countries. The first person, which came to me from abroad, was Maria Razumovskaia from Vienna. In Moscow she was told that there was such a museum in someone’s home. In this museum at home there were paintings of contemporary artists who painted Tsvetaeva’s portraits from her photographs. There were those photographs, most of the time enlarged. There were books, old and new, and publications presented in such a way that one could view them. I corresponded with people in Czechoslovakia and with people in East Germany and I asked them to send me publications of Tsvetaeva’s work in foreign languages. So for that time (the end of 60s, beginning of the 70s), even if I did not yet have any of Tsvetaeva’s personal belongings, the editions were already interesting on their own. 

Getting ahead of myself, I will say that the first meeting of the group “Everything about Tsvetaeva,” associated with my collection, happened at my house (later we moved to the library). I cleared a bookcase with four shelves and placed the poet’s publications in recent years, in our country and abroad. It turned out, for example, that in the preceding two years 47 publications of Tsvetaeva’s works and about her had appeared. Tsvetaeva seemed like an almost banned writer, and nevertheless, so many materials about her existed. 

AK -    There was enough space in your home to show these things?

LM -    Yes, there was. It was not very big, but somehow the family was willing to help me immediately. My library consisted basically of the Tsvetaeva collection. With time, after I had begun to collect Tsvetaeva, I was forced to sell the art books. I had to get rid of them because of the space and the money. And because I collected any publication of Tsvetaeva, in any anthology or magazine, all of it grew really fast. But, nevertheless, it fit. Later in 1975 or 1976, I acquired some personal items of Tsvetaeva.

AK -    How did this happen?

LM -    It happened through Victoria Shveitser, you know her, right? A famous specialist on Tsvetaeva. She was planning to immigrate to America and before her departure she visited me at my home. During dinner she told me that her acquaintances traveled around the outskirts of Moscow searching for icons. In one of the villages they were told that they did not have icons, but they did have something that once belonged to Tsvetaeva; they were not interested. They simply told Victoria about it. Because she was leaving, she also could not work on this. The address was quite indistinct. It was called the Dmitrovsky area in the suburbs of Moscow. The village was called Chernyaevo, or Cherneevo, or Chernovo, or something like that. The chairwoman of the village council, Anna Mikhailovna, possessed these things.

We went to Dmitrovo, and there we began to inquire from the taxi drivers. One of them told us that, yes, there exists a village called Cherneevo. We asked him to drive us there. We arrived and began to walk around, inquiring in huts whether anyone had anything, any kind of relics. No one had anything. We were in complete despair, were about to leave the village, and then an elderly woman came out from a forest, pushing a stroller with a grandson or a granddaughter.

She was so surprised by the looks on our faces (we were all so distraught), that she said: “Are you looking for someone?”

“Yes, we were told that Anna Mikhailovna, the chairwoman of the village council is supposed to live here, and she has some of Tsvetaeva’s belongings at her house,”

She said: “Well, I am not the chairwoman of the village council, and I am not Anna Mikhailovna, but Anna Ivanovna. That’s me. Follow me, I will show you.”

And we followed. She told us that in 1922, when Tsvetaeva decided to go abroad, she sold and gave away some of her things. There was a military base beside her house on Borisoglebsky lane, where someone named Nikolai Polenov was serving. Tsvetaeva and Polenov got acquainted through smoking and sharing tobacco.

So, they smoked and smoked, and then Tsvetaeva says, “I am leaving. I need to give away the furniture, the kitchenware, and so on, and I don’t even know what to do. Soon, I will start throwing it away.”

He says, “Why? I will take it to my village.”

And everything that he could take, he took to the village. He had three sisters. They shared all the things among them. Two of them later moved to Moscow and took a portion of the things. In Moscow it all disappeared, or with time had just fallen apart, or became useless. But in the village, it was preserved.

There was a mirror, a large living room mirror; there was a small toiletry table and kitchenware typical of that time. But most importantly, there were postcards, signed by Tsvetaeva – full proof that these were her things.

But then comes an ethical moment – how do you ask for it? It is problematic – the mirror is hanging, the kitchenware is in use, and so on. We began the conversation very carefully, and the hostess says, “We’ve been using the mirror for 40 years, and the kitchenware, it is simply impossible to buy kitchenware because of the deficit.”

We understood that in our own way, and say, “Can we come to you next week?”

She says, “Ok, come.”

In Moscow, we went to a second hand store and found a similar mirror. Then we bought a set of kitchenware, and in addition, some records with the readings of Tsvetaeva’s poems. I believe it was an actress Doronina, one of the first readers of Tsvetaeva. We also bought a little anthology of poems of various poets.

Then we returned.

“Anna Ivanovna, so this is the situation…”

And she says, “Great, take all the old junk.”

So that is how we got the personal items. Of course, they immediately gave to the collection the atmosphere of a museum in a house: when a person came to my apartment, this was impressive and touching. Later, with time, when I became acquainted with Anastassia Ivanovna Tsvetaeva, the sister of the poet, and she found out that I collect everything related to her sister she gave me Marina’s dress. It also hung in my room for many years. Of course many people wanted to see it and even  touch it.

The second evening (now I am getting ahead of myself again), was held at the library of the Moscow area where I lived, and was dedicated to Vladimir Bronislavovich Sosinsky, an immigrant who knew Tsvetaeva well. He was in correspondence with her and defended her during one of the literary disputes by making a speech against the attacks on Tsvetaeva by a famous critic Vladimir Zlobin. For that, Tsvetaeva presented Sosinski with a ring bearing the herald of St. Andrew and an engraving that said, “A friend is known through deeds.” On that evening he donated the ring to my museum. It is still in my collection.

But Tsvetaeva’s table, mirror and dress I gave away to the Moscow museum. Keeping such relics in a museum in a private house hardly makes sense.

When the number of visitors to my house started to surpass any reasonable bounds, it became difficult for my family, with people always coming and taking time; you have to treat them to some refreshments. I don’t mind, but it all takes time and effort. Then we had the idea to hold meetings for all of those who shared our interests:  to organize evenings, each of which would be based on some theme and would bring everyone who wanted to come together. Then, in order to preserve everything that was talked about during these evenings (a lot was said), we had the idea to record them and create some kind of compilation from these recordings.

AK -    What year was this?

LM -    This was 1978. The first meeting was on the 8th of October. On the 18th of December, when the second meeting was held, already, there were many people. All my friends came, even those who did not know about Tsvetaeva but were simply interested to learn and become familiar with her.

AK -    And what does it mean - a lot? Approximately how many people were there?

LM -    How many? Around a hundred.

AK -    A hundred?!

LM -    The hall in the library could fit around 100 people. It was also possible to stand in the doors.

AK -    What library was this?

LM -    It was in the public library of the Zhdanovsky district. Sounds serious, no? Zhdanovsky. Now it is the Tagansky district. Then it was Zhdanovsky. Some friends even mocked me a bit, remembering that notorious decree of 1946. It was a district library and I simply lived beside it.

I was on really good terms with the Society of Booklovers in the district, because I worked at the Research Institute and simultaneously was busy with distributing books: regular, new, Soviet books. I created simple notices and information on modern books and was on good term with them. It seemed like my public presentations regarding these books were included in the general reports about the social work of the institute. Because of that, when I came in with a request “to be allowed to organize literary evenings in Tagansky library,” no real questions or barriers arose. The department of culture in the district committee of the Party said that, yes, they do not object, and it would even be good to introduce regular and needed work like that.

For seven to eight years, we would gather there regularly. Each time we were able to prepare something new but by all means related to Tsvetaeva. Many knew about it and waited impatiently. Later, years later, some participants told me, that it was a sort of a spiritual escape for people in Moscow – somewhere in a district library these kinds of things took place.  

AK -    How many lectures were given in one evening?

LM -    It was different each time. It could be one principal lecture, for example, like the evening of Sosinsky, when he remembered his meetings with Tsvetaeva. And then someone read the memoirs of, let’s say, his wife Ariadna Chernova (she passed away three years before our evening). There were letters and memoirs of Tsvetaeva and about her. Someone from the actors started to read. Someone from the audience said something, added something.

There was Sosinsky’s evening. Then there was the evening featuring Ilya Zilberstein, who in his day brought over a mass of émigré materials from Paris collected during one of his working trips abroad. He was involved in creating academic editions of the literary heritage. The authorities sent him to France to search among the immigrants and to collect documents, materials and so forth. Upon his return, he wrote a book about it and came to our meeting to tell us about what he found on Tsvetaeva.

During another evening the lecturer was Eugene Borisovich Pasternak, the son of the poet, who read letters of Tsvetaeva and Pasternak. Many texts were still unknown at that time.

There were combined topics some evenings: for example “Tsvetaeva and the Novel.” There were several of these, five or six maybe. Someone has a rare edition, a rare inscription, and here is a story… and, of course, a few related presentations.

AK -    Did someone ever drop in to check whether there was “anti-Soviet” material?

LM -    I think so, because during one of the evenings (during the 5th or the 6th), Olga Vsevolodna Ivinskaya was there, a very famous figure of that time. This was a person who went through the camps, the author of memoirs about Pasternak. Besides that, Alexei Eisner came to every evening and after being in camps for many years he was not afraid to say out loud whatever he thought was important: for example, if just yesterday he read Solzhenitsyn, he now would be advising others to read it, and so on. So these were the type of things, which at that time could not avoid being noticed by the authorities.

They probably did come. I can even say that I heard something that amazed me, someone voiced the suspicion that all of this was done under the aegis of the security services. Before evenings started I usually stood in the entrance to greet and admit people: “Hello, take off your coat, please come in. Hello, take off your coat…” This was before we started, right, and I overheard a conversation. One person said to his friend (they were standing together), “It’s not possible that the KGB would not be controlling all of this.” That was what they said.

I do not think that there was any real control, because it was not an obviously dissident activity. This was not a challenge. It was a literary evening. All that time, I never crossed the boundary of the permissible. Not because I was afraid that I would get called in, no. I was only afraid that they would shut me down, and I would lose my interesting work.

Because of that, I alternated the subjects – from the controversial to the uncontroversial. Sosinsky, let’s say, talked about immigration, the White movement, about the journal Russia’s Will where he worked and so on. Next time, we had Ilya Zilberstein, an official cultural figure. And then again a banned subject, for example, about Tsvetaeva’s daughter, Ariadna Sergeevna Efron, and her years in camp. We would read her letters sent from the camps, and then “Tsvetaeva and the Novel,” you see? For example, we would have the evening with emigré poet Alexei Eisner and then “Tsvetaeva’s Moscow.” So, as soon as one might think that there was something wrong- no, no, everything seems normal. I wanted to preserve it for as long as possible.

The author of the first monograph about Tsvetaeva in English, Professor Simon Karlinsky came from the US for a visit. There was an evening dedicated to him, but it took place not in that library. We moved to the Nekrasov library. It was an extremely interesting evening. He went to where he was born, Alma-Ata, and passed through Moscow. We agreed that he would give a lecture. Unfortunately, we were unable to publish an issue for this evening; we had already stopped printing our publication in 1985.

AK -     And when was this?

LM -    This was 1988, maybe 1989.

AK -    So it was already after the publication of your 20 issues?

LM -    Yes, yes, it was after that.  Unfortunately, I cannot even remember well why we did not make an issue, at least as an exception. We either did not have enough energy, or in our opinion, there was no necessity to print the lecture of Karlinsky, because his book had been already published.

In Moscow, there were two translations of his books in circulation. I requested one of the translations to be done, and the other came from an admirer of Tsvetaeva who knew English well. So those were preserved and thus there exist two translations of Karlinsky in Russian, both samizdat. They translated it, they bound it – I have one copy and I am still using it. 

Technically, it would be possible to restore that evening on paper. The audio recording is preserved in the archive. 

AK -    Understood. I want to clarify about the actual translations. When you requested this, it was of course not an official translation, and it was necessary to pay for it or no?

LM -    No, it was all friends – friends who wanted to do everything themselves. One of the translators suffered, because he lived in a dormitory and was interested in Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva and immigrant literature. When the KGB learned about it, they came to search his place. They took everything from the drawer. They called him in and had a talk with him. Among the materials and books they took from him was the second copy of this translation. He managed to give me the first copy, but he kept the second copy for himself, to work on and to read. It seems the KGB did not find anything anti-Soviet in the translation. In their opinion, I can only suppose, the text did not resemble something that could threaten the powers that be. However, they could consider any samizdat dangerous. They left him alone, but it was a very unpleasant situation.  

AK -    At that time, were you finding western editions of Tsvetaeva?

LM -    Yes I was. I collected them with difficulty, hid them at home, of course, pushed them behind the regular books. I was very afraid that if they found out, then they would be confiscated. And then how would I find them again? For example, The Demesne of the Swans (Лебединый стан), 1957, Munich. I was sure that if I were to be deprived of that book, I would never be able to replace it.

I valued greatly the volume of Tsvetaeva’s prose of 1953 from Chekhov publications in the US. I found this book in Petersburg (then Leningrad) through an exchange with another book lover. He was on a business trip abroad. Somehow he had an opportunity to get the book across. He himself needed our old magazines, like Apollo or something similar, and I gladly exchanged them with him. I bought the 1957 first edition of The Demesne of the Swans on the black market, it was all very secretive. They looked at me suspiciously, studied me, and then in the end sold it to me.

A large, red volume of miscellaneous works by Tsvetaeva (Несобранные произведения) was published in Germany in 1971. I really wanted to buy that book, and Karlinsky promised, “I will send it to you.” I said, “No, I am afraid, that it will not reach me. It would be confiscated.” And then we came up with the idea that he would send it to Prague. That would not be difficult – hardly anyone at the post office in Prague would have noticed the Russian book on Tsvetaeva. I used to play at the European chess tournament, through correspondence, and one of the members of the tournament lived in Prague. He agreed to receive the book from America and to send it on to me. He received it and sent it on to me. From Czechoslovakia, like from other socialist countries, like Poland, Bulgaria and others, the parcels were not thoroughly examined, because one hardly could presume that someone would send books that are published in a different country from the Czech Republic. It was a regular parcel and that was it.

So, that was how I got that book, and then I got Karlinsky’s own book (already a second edition), again, with an inscription. And later, when many people began to come from abroad, someone was able to bring a journal, for example Contemporary Annals (Современные записки); someone brought an anthology, and so on. When Veronika Losskaya, a professor from Paris, came to Moscow in 1976, she brought me the Parisian anthology After Russia (После России). People visited and helped with collecting, subsequently offering a great support.

AK -    Could I ask more concretely about the Collection All About Tsvetaeva (Все о Цветаевой)?

LM -    Yes, yes of course.

AK -    How many issues were there?

LM -    According to the chronicle that was published in a small brochure format, between 1975 and 1985 there were twenty-six meetings, later, another ten or more, including, as I have already mentioned, the meeting with Karlinsky. There were lectures by Genrikh Gorchakov, who is now in Israel, S. Lipkin, and B. Lisnianskaia – that was all after. So, twenty-six were recorded. In regard to the actual issues, out of the twenty-six, I think seven are missing: one time the stereo system broke during the fourteenth meeting, in other cases the readings were very long, and there were so many reports (more than ten full essays, then debates) that we did not have enough strength to transcribe the tapes (for the sixteenth and twentieth evenings). I believe that the twenty-second issue was the last one.  Around ten of the evenings were preserved only in the audio recording (19, 20, 23-27, 30, 37, 39). I will check at home.

We did the typewriting work in my laboratory. As the senior research worker, I was in charge of the laboratory. Little by little all my coworkers also got involved in my non-technical life. There would be a telephone call, and a person in the laboratory would pick up and say: “Yes, yes, one second…” and would say to me: “Anastassia Tsvetaeva is asking for you,” or “There is some actress on the phone…” Naturally, questions would arise. I was once on television, during an evening dedicated to Tsvetaeva. For my Technical Institute, it was a little bit unusual. In other words, my colleagues learned about my hobby and helped me according to their abilities. One colleague, who worked with me would stay late in the evening, making sure that no one would come in, and would print three copies of the chronicle.

AK -    A person at the Institute?

LM -    Yes, yes. In the laboratory she worked on documentation, plans, etc. and printed these for me for free, because she was interested in it herself. The cover was also made for me at the Institute; it was simple, only writing. It was designed for all the issues. The only thing that changed was the number. My friend who did the cover also worked at the Institute. It was necessary to get three copies done, so we did that for every issue.

AK -    What did the cover look like?

LM -    Oh, it was very simple. A type of border, here in large font Everything about Tsvetaeva and in smaller font the number of the issue. Below that was “Moscow.” Above, were the dates: 1892 – the birth of Tsvetaeva and the year of the publication (the first – in 1978). The names of the editors were indicated on the back – me, as always, and those who were involved in preparing the evening: the artists, the photographer.

There were photographs. We would glue three to four photos into every issue. We chose them from the large number of photographs that were taken during every evening. I still have them now.

AK -    Why would you always make three copies?

LM -   Three copies, maybe even more, so that there would be enough for the publications and for those who wanted to keep them as a souvenir. I have packages of the first meeting (1978) and the second meeting (1978), where there were many photographs, which, of course, did not all get included in the issues, since there were ten or fifteen of them. I took the most characteristic ones, just to illustrate the evening.

If there was one speaker, then his portrait was essential; also, the view of the whole hall, to demonstrate the number of people. It could be a book with a reproduced autograph. So, for example, there was this artist Leonid Feinberg, who as a little boy photographed Tsvetaeva in Koktebel in the Crimea. The majority of photographs of her life in Koktebel are his work. After that, he wrote a chapter of memoirs about her, but it was not published. We read excerpts from it. After a few years, that chapter was printed. He was also an artist, so we hung his works in the library, four of which were dedicated to Tsvetaeva. He later painted her portraits from his memory. Two of them were reproduced in one of the later issues, as were a few of his earlier photographs with Tsvetaeva.

AK -    These were also old photographs of Tsvetaeva, or were they photographs of you and your materials?

LM -     Most of the times they were photographs of the materials. When an evening was dedicated to “Tsvetaeva and the Novel,” we placed an image of Tsvetaeva reading a book in 1911 on the issue. Photocopies were made and printed from the original that I have. But there were also photographs of the meeting itself.

AK -    If you are saying that you held the meetings in general 3 to 4 times a year, then were there 3 to 4 issues a year?

LM -  Yes.

AK -    What was the average length?

LM -  The average length? I am not sure, maybe 50 to 80 pages. […] Unfortunately, as I have already mentioned, we could not make very detailed issues for the serious readings, which most likely would result in more than 150 pages.

I can tell you right now what the Tsvetaeva readings looked like. This was the 8th of October 1982. The program: about the Poem of the Air (Поэма воздуха) – Anna Saakiants spoke; about prose – Irma Kudrova. Besides them, there was Galina Vanechkova from Prague, M. Solovieva from the Mayakovsky museum, me, Vladimir Kupchenko from the Voloshin museum, E. Lubiannikova from Leningrad, and others. The reading went on all day with more than 10 papers (about 20 to 30 minutes), discussions and lectures. There were several audiocassettes. Perhaps one day the time will come and there will be a sixteenth issue.

In 1986, people who partook in the reading were M. Gasparov and S. Averintsev. Sergei Sergeevich [Averintsev] talked about Tsvetaeva and European culture. He talked a lot and for a long time. Again, there was not enough time or energy to transcribe the text from the audio recording. Maybe in the future those who come after us will do that. 

AK -    Were there any papers that would be read publicly for the first time during your meetings and would be published later?

LM -    Very many were published. For example, Gasparov gave lectures about four times, and after two or three years, he published his essays in periodicals or anthologies.

Also, there were Tsvetaeva’s unknown letters. For example, Tsvetaeva’s letters to Eugene Lann were read publicly during our evening for the first time.  Already after some time, the letters were published and later included in an anthology of Tsvetaeva.

There are many of these examples either in the form of articles or documents. We should do a review – of course some materials remained unpublished.

Perhaps they are not very relevant or valuable today; nevertheless, this is history. Almost everything got preserved on the cassettes, and I want to try to make an audio CD-ROM of all that remains. I told you that a part of the cassettes were recorded at 4x speed and the other part at 2x speed, because I tried to economize. In the Seventies it was difficult to come across clean cassettes in Russia, and they were expensive. Even if I did get a hold of them, I recorded everything on 2x speed, so that twice as much of the information could fit on the cassette.

AK -    When you made three copies, how were they distributed and how were they preserved?

LM -  I think the question of distribution came up from the very beginning, when we were printing.

In the foreword to the chronicle of these events, I wrote that first of all they were meant to preserve the actual fact of the meetings and materials. More than that, in the future they could be destined for the State collections, even though, of course, at that time I did not believe in State collections. Like many others, I was not permitted into the archive, and it was very problematic to get into the special collections. So the idea of the State collections was oriented to some kind of far-off future.

It was absolutely impossible to make a large number of photocopies. I worked in a technical institute, and no one would ever bother with literary work in the department where project documents were reproduced.

AK -    However, there was one person who could make photocopies of the cover?

LM -     Yes, three copies, but it was a harmless thing. I don’t even know how it worked. Maybe he drew all three of them. Maybe he didn’t even copy them, but made everything by hand.

AK -    Oh, by the way, could you name these people?

LM -     Of course. This is how it was: on the back of the cover there is an inscription –  photo works by Artem Zadikian, cover work by Eugene Zelvianskii, typewriting work by Irina Liubimova.

I asked them “Would you mind if it is noted down like that? Do you agree?”

“Yes, of course!”

It was pointless to print many copies, because they were hard to see – difficult to read. The typewriter could not print more than three copies on regular (not onion-skin) paper. The 4th and the 5th copies were useless.

It was impossible even to dream about photocopies. All of my friends and those who shared my ideas – everyone who researched Tsvetaeva, who collected materials about her, who read her work, who came to the readings – they heard everything “live.” If they wanted, they could take notes and jot down some comments. No one said, “Give me that, make me a copy” – there was no such thing because everyone understood how it was. They knew that the evening was recorded and preserved, and that you could always read or ask for it. But to up the number of copies to 5 or to15 was simply technically impossible.

AK -    So, generally, the 3 copies were meant for preservation?

LM -     Yes. With time, copying these types of issues became easier, when photocopying became accessible, when all of this, in general, became a lot easier – to print and to copy and to design a book – when there were no more problems with their circulation and presenting them as gifts, then at that moment (well maybe a bit earlier), our “production” of the issues was practically finished.

In the 1980s, Tsvetaeva had already stopped being a censured poet, and the number of copies of her books grew each day. A few museums dedicated to Tsvetaeva were opened in the country, and our Tsvetaeva evenings stopped playing an important role in the cultural life of Moscow. The issues were history, and our meetings (in total 41) an example of how one can be immersed in the creative work of a poet; how one could “serve” the poet.

My collection Everything about Tsvetaeva continued to help me later. Soon, I became the head of the research department of the House Museum of Tsvetaeva in Moscow

AK -    You became their research director?

LM -    Yes. In 1990 I received an offer from the direction of the Tsvetaeva House Museum in Moscow to head the research work. I left the Research Institute of Electrothermic Processes; I decided to leave my laboratory and my position as a researcher and an inventor. There was a loss in income, but I had to make up my mind: either technology or literature. I could no longer do both simultaneously, the way I did before. I chose Tsvetaeva.

That was how I became a vice-director of the research department. In the beginning the work was fine: I participated and held research-based international conferences; I was occupied with compiling a museum library, and I gave lectures. In 1992, I organized a large jubilee exhibition dedicated to 100 years of Tsvetaeva. The exposition consisted completely of the materials from my collection (more than 1000 objects: photographs, autographs, manuscripts, publications, books, etc.). In 1993 the Museum published the most complete bibliography of Tsvetaeva, which I compiled together with a French bibliographer T. Gladkova. And so forth.

However, it did not last very long. My activists and my contacts with Tsvetaeva scholars (including those abroad), bothered some people. They began to slander me. I was placed in a work environment that was not compatible with any creative activity. In short, it was suggested that I would no longer be the vice-director but the head of the exhibition department.

I said, “You’ve invited me to do research, and I am not interested in other positions. I am leaving.”

I left and began to cooperate with the rest of the Tsvetaeva museums – with the Alexandrovsky museum, with the Bolshevo museum. Then came the first release of “our issues.” I presented three or four issues from the set of the third copies to the archives during one of the celebrations in the Aleksandrovsky museum. And then, at the conference in Bolshevo, I presented a paper on “Tsvetaeva and Samizdat,” and I also presented three or four issues to them, as an illustration for this dissertation.

So, that means that I only have one third of the third copy set. I preserved the first and the second issues entirely. Maybe with time it would be possible to add the issues of those evenings that only exist on audiocassettes. It is possible that these sets would get to the Tsvetaeva museum or the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI), or to some future museum of samizdat. The time has not yet come. Incidentally, it has been over ten years that I have been leading the research department in the Tsvetaeva Museum in Bolshevo. In the recent years, I have been working together with the Moscow Tsvetaeva museum, because the situation there had changed.

AK -    Could you tell me please when the issues began and ended?

LM -     They began in 1978, and the last issue came out in 1984.

AK -    You have a full set at home?

LM -     Yes, yes. One of my friends even suggested I reprint it: to take it and republish it, disregarding the fact that a lot is already published. However, the publishers say that what is important is the fact in itself, the history of their creation. This, of course, will take work, and there is not enough time at the moment to prepare it, to edit it (all of that is not simple), to provide commentaries, which no one except me would write. As I already said, we could add to the already existing issues, that which could be restored. Maybe, when I finish the project of the Biographical Dictionary of Russian Immigration in France,[4] on which I am currently working, maybe I will begin the release. 

For the past two or three years, people have been asking me to resurrect the readings. I think that it is pointless, because there are various readings in the six museums and there is a conference every year. Back then, during the years of stagnation, it was needed; now, it would be some kind of amateur activity. Then, I rocked that boat: gathering like-minded people, who still meet with one another until today. Many of the contacts made then are still alive in the present day. We continue to exchange information. Some began then and still collect books and publications. Then, it was important and it was needed. Now it is not. There is no need to study Tsvetaeva in this form.

AK -    Were these issues mentioned anywhere in print?

LM -    The issues were not mentioned. The actual Tsvetaeva evenings were; the evenings were described.

AK -    Where?

LM -     It was described in Literary Russia (Литературная Россия), and the Review of Books (Книжное обозрение). There was also a journal In the World of Books (В мире книг). I have all the details, but I also have to look it up.

I collected everything that was written about the evenings. It could be in various newspapers, for example, in the Teachers’ Newspaper (Учительская газета), the Construction Newspaper (Строительная газета), and in other similar publications. They wrote a lot more about the actual collection Everything about Tsvetaeva than about the evenings, and about specific issues, I don’t remember. Most likely. Although I never paid a lot of attention to this question when I was asked about the evenings. However, if I was asked, I would respond, “Yes, we write, record, and we preserve it.” I would not make a secret out of it. However there were concerns – if the existence of the issues would become widely known, then people would ask to borrow them for research work. I could not afford to lose them. If one asked for copies to do research, then another would too, and then I would not be able to refuse. But would I be able to get it all back? Various things can happen in life.

AK -    What interest do these issues contain for today? Are there some specific works that are original, or especially interesting? Or [could you provide] perhaps, a description of a specific work that shows how much it was needed then, and what it was all about?

LM -    I think so. This was 30 years ago, yes? Then, if one could remember or know those times well, they would be able to assess those activities. Because it is difficult to imagine that the sister of the poet, Anastassia Tsvetaeva; or the leading expert on Tsvetaeva, Anna Saakiants; or an individual who went through the camps, for example, the writer Alexei Eisner; or those who were in emigration, all came to the apartment of a collector or a district library for an evening dedicated to Tsvetaeva. Let’s say, National Artists of the Soviet Union Rostislav Pliatt, or Dmitrii Zhuravlev – an outstanding reader who created a whole school of readers, and who used to meet with Tsvetaeva – would set aside their own affairs and come to give performances in a district library.

Many famous writers, literary specialists, artists responded (it is enough to see the programs of the evenings to realize that). I am still amazed by how we were able to gather the principle participants of the evenings. I would find a phone number of a famous person, who I wanted to invite to the evening and would call them: “I am so-and-so… I do such-and-such… there will be an evening dedicated to Tsvetaeva.” They would say: “Yes, if I don’t have a performance, I will come,” or “Yes, if I will be in Moscow that day, then of course I will come and give a lecture at your evening,” and so forth.

Right now it is difficult to imagine that, at least for me personally. Today, I would not be able to tell you, who out of the famous philologists (like Averintsev or Gasparov, who spoke at our evenings) or someone from the nationally recognized performers would simply, without any conditions, come to such an intimate, chamber setting for an evening.

All of this was, without a doubt, first and foremost related to Tsvetaeva – to the fact that people wanted to support her name and her work in any possible way. That alone was very significant. More than that, one cannot forget that all of this, in the end, was official: it happened in a library and not somewhere in a basement. That also helped facilitate a quick return of the poet’s name into our cultural heritage. More than that, the subjects discussed there could not be heard publicly anywhere else. They might later be discussed in the halls; but, the Tsvetaeva club was a society of like-minded people, where we talked about everything openly.

With years we learned more and more, and our literary positions became more defined, especially, when time came to deal with the official position in relation to Tsvetaeva. In 1981 or 1982 the journal Literary Review (Литературное обозрение) offered me the chance to publish a selection of letters of Ariadna Sergeevna Efron about the poetry and the creative work of her mother, literary facts of her biography, and so on. Among those letters that I had some were original and some were copies. The ones I selected were those where she spoke of Tsvetaeva’s works, about her contemporaries, about Pasternak and others. The selection turned out to be quite interesting, at least, from the literary point of view.

I asked Anna Saakiants to write the introductory chapter. I could not write these types of articles myself, and the authority of Anna Saakiants added additional impetus to the possibility of publishing the materials at all (by that time, I had seen more than once how an editor at the last moment could reject the publication of Tsvetaeva’s materials). In her article, Saakiants wrote about Ariadna Sergeevna, about her literary talent, about her solicitous attitude towards her mother’s legacy, and so on. Then there was a paragraph, which contained roughly the following: “Unfortunately, this talent was not fully realized because for sixteen years Ariadna Efron was forcefully excluded from a normal human life (being in a prison camp)…”

So we come to the editor, and Anna Saakiants is told that this paragraph must be excluded. She absolutely refuses: “Then I am withdrawing my article and my signature,” and so forth. Of course, I agreed with her; however, from another perspective, readers were being deprived of the publication on Tsvetaeva. In the end Saakyants decided: “Fine, I will not sign it. Let them do what they want.” The magazine came out, and we received copies. Anna Aleksnadrovna typed out separately about 50 to 70 copies of the paragraph that was cut out by the publishers. We glued it into every copy, whenever we could.

I and a few other colleagues still have this magazine with the glued-in insert. In analogous situations, we never felt that we were presenting some kind of affront or that our goal was to constantly protest. No, we simply aimed to tell it like it was. This attracted many people. I think it was one of the most valuable aspects of our meetings. In addition, it was not any less significant that many for the first time could see famous, talented people, including contemporaries of Tsvetaeva. The audience could know some of them through their books and publications, but to see them with their own eyes, to hear their memories – in Moscow that opportunity existed perhaps only at our evenings.  

AK -    Did you have a principal group of some sort?

LM -    Yes.

AK -    How many people were there?

LM -    The group that organized the event or that came?

AK -    That came.

LM -    Each time I called probably around 40 to 50 people, and then they brought others with them. Some people already knew ahead of time, so there was no need to call them. Some consistently stayed in contact with me, especially those who helped me to organize the next evening. If we needed to invite someone from the main speakers, it meant first of all, finding someone with a car to bring them to the event. Lets say, if it was an elderly man, then I had to ask my friends who had a car: “Please bring, the Tager couple with you. They are 85 yeas old, and it’s difficult for them to walk.”

Or, lets say, we needed to print the tickets. It was always problematic to print these tickets. They were not printed in large quantities, approximately 20 to 30 copies. I could not print tickets for all 100 people who came; it was impossible. To do more would just complicate our work. Thirty copies was the normal amount for all those who collected the tickets and chronicled our meetings. Our closest circle was right about 30 people.  Sometimes, I organized the printing through the Society of Booklovers. Sometimes, someone would do it through acquaintances, or someone was indebt to someone else and they would print, and so on. It could be printed on a photocopier together with other documents, and then the extra would be cropped. Sometimes we had to make the tickets by photographing and printing photographic copes; at that time there were no other options.  

AK -    That is also interesting. I hope that they also got preserved.

LM -    Yes, all the tickets got preserved. I glued in a ticket into every issue, so that it would not get lost. The tickets that are separately preserved are from the meetings that did not have published issues. By the way, I still have a lot of tickets from my lectures. When I started to give lectures regularly and travel around libraries, schools, and institutes (when I was still interested in all of it), I often came across a question from the organizers: “We don’t know how we could pay you.” I always responded that I had one condition; they could print an invitation ticket from their organization that would say: “The engineer L. Mhukhin will be giving a lecture about his collection Everything about Tsvetaeva at such-and-such a time in such-and-such a place.” It was important for me to strengthen the authority of my collection and my activities.

Apart from that, in some way I continued to learn, partly on the principle of a professor who said, “I keep explaining it to my students, but they do not understand. I explain it to them again, and they still don’t understand. Now, even I have already begun to understand it myself.” So, same here. Each time, in preparing to give a lecture, going over the text in my head, I would find something new for myself and would think about it. I was always preparing. I never had a memorized text; the lectures were not written down in stone. First of all, I always had new materials; subsequently there were new fragments of the lectures. Secondly, in some places I gave the lecture twice, in some cities four to five lectures.  Very often people went from one lecture to another, and then asked me, “Why did you not tell us about that before?” Not one of my lectures came out too similar to the previous one. I could not do it otherwise. I would get bored from the same repetitive story. So, there it is.

AK -    Thank you.


[1] The so-called “fifth paragraph” in Soviet passports indicated nationality. There were quotas and barriers to entry for persons identified as “Jewish” in many Soviet institutions of higher education at that time.

[2] In Soviet press around that time there were debates about the relative importance of science vs. humanities, a long running discussion reconsidered by Konstantin Bogdanov, “Fiziki vs. liriki: k istorii odnoi ‘pridurkovatoi’ diskussii,”  Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie 111 (2011).

[3] The literary almanac Metropol (1979) appeared in English translation as Metropol, ed. Vasily Aksyonov , NY: W. W. Norton, 1982.

[4] «Российское зарубежье во Франции : 1919-2000 : биографический словарь в трёх томах» под общей редакцией Л. Мнухина, М. Авриль, В. Лосской. Москва : Наука, Дом-музей Марины Цветаевой, 2008-2010.