Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist – installment two

Diary notes, Saturday, 15 August 1987   Brussels – Namur

At 9am, I leave the house in a great rush for Forêt to pick up Vladimir Maksimov, per request of Galya, who called last night to ask that I do this favor and also to make certain that I set out very early: that’s the best time to go, she said. Sounded a bit peculiar. I wasn’t aware that mushrooms, like fish, prefer to be chased at one or another hour.

Without too much difficulty I locate Maksimov’s house – he invites me in to wait. Shake hands with Aksyonov and his wife, who are driving out to Bruges today. Also meet a big, lively guy in his late 50s who is going with us to Namur. He is wearing conspicuously new jeans and sandals. I advise him to put on something more serious for a walk in the woods and he returns in equally spanking new jogging sneakers. He is close shaven, has full, silvery hair and deeply bronzed skin. I don’t catch the name but his theatrical manner and mention of Taganka as we get in the car – he in front with me – Maksimov in his safari suit in the back – convinces me he is Yuri Lyubimov, which is later confirmed.

The day is bright and as we drive out on Roosevelt Avenue and onto the highway to Namur. I regret I haven’t cleaned the windows recently; the car looks dirty, unkempt.

Maksimov is very quiet in the back and I mostly converse with Lyubimov. He is very eager to talk about Israel, where he settled 3 months ago after living a nomadic existence for the past 3 years, from Rome to London and other points. Likes Israel – says they made him a good offer, make him welcome. He was chased out of Paris and out of La Scala in Milano after the Soviets lifted his citizenship and has been looking for a home. Talks ebulliently about the Kibbutz, about the climate in Jerusalem. Says he doesn’t like Haifa because it is Leftist dominated. Theater life is meager, mostly there is musical life. All are very proud of the Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. Lyubimov will be in charge of the Bathsheba theater. But clearly he will be spending a lot of time on the road: tomorrow he departs for Chicago to put on some opera production, then in the season he will put on the Ring Cycle of Wagner at Covent Garden and Tannhäuser at Stuttgart. I mention that 2 weeks ago I was in Leningrad and that the impression was of grinding poverty, economic crisis which is the motive for Gorbachev’s economic policy. I mention the Shmelyov article, about which they do not know; say that only concrete results so far are pay toilets and blitz portraits. I ask about Dupak’s statement in Warsaw last December that Lyubimov would be returning and he says Dupak was the informer in the Administration; the man is not to be trusted or believed.

To my surprise, I find Galya’s house without difficulty after an absence of perhaps 8 – 10 months. Masha, Igor and their big black mutt Jack rush out to see us. We pack pails and set out by car for a count’s forest, 10 minutes away. I park before a warning sign that trespassers risk coming before hunters (Galya says not to mind). We trudge into the woods. Galya and Masha instantly spot опята, then белые грибы. I finally get a couple of kilos of the опята, but nothing more refined.

Lyubimov tells how before his start at Milan’s Scala, he got quite nervous – accepted an offer of Leningrad choreographer Godunov to produce a ballet – for him an entirely new area of work – as a distraction. Lyubimov also talks about why for a theater director to work with an opera company represents steady pay. He never believed it would be so hard to find work as a director in the West.

Lyubimov finds only one рыжок and Maximov finds nothing at all in the two hours we search. Besides the modest harvest of mushrooms we gorge ourselves on blueberries. Low bushes are full of fruit. Our hands become purplish. The latest health warnings – that berries may carry rabies-infected urine of mad foxes doesn’t dissuade us.

Back at Galya’s, she slowly prepares the meal, which turns out to be rather modest meat stew and fish cakes. I wonder why the mushrooms have not been served. We chat. Lyubimov talks about the administration of the Taganka : how even the highest stars and he himself made no more than 300 rubles per month; how the seat prices were absurdly low – cheaper than cinema and how the theater was permanently dependent on state subsidies. All along Galya says to this and that “конечно”. Such a lack of interest in details and superficial acceptance of new information explains her near total ignorance.

As we prepare to leave, I am asked mysteriously whether we will meet tonight and must assume we will not.

We drive back to Brussels and just as I drop off Lyubimov and Maksimov, the latter says: ‘you’re invited to a barbecue tonight at 7.30.’ And so I will go after all.

I arrive at the party to find that everyone is there:  Nina Hirschhorn (Philippe is in Switzerland on concert), Larisa and Romy, Galya and Igor, Mara and her son and brother, as well as Lyubimov and Aksyonov plus the latter’s wife, a bossy blonde named Maria. There is also one older gent, who turns out to be a 97 year old doctor who emigrated a few years ago to Belgium and lives in an old age home under Mara’s supervision. He looks no more than 70 – slow but alert and really enjoying this outing : “я никогда не думал, что в старости моей жизни я бы присутствовал в таком обществе…”  A bit tiresome, but all put up with him – especially when he delivers a charming toast concluding with the wish that we all live up to his ripe age.

The highlight of the evening is the two-man routine of Lyubimov and Aksyonov doing an interview of Brezhnev in the nether world. Both stand at the hearth. Lyubimov becomes lively. He is a big physical presence – heightened by the contrast of silvery hair to deep bronze complexion. The most important feature is his hands, which end in long, well-manicured fingers – contrasting by refinement with his big frame and fleshy belly.




My first awareness of Yuri Lyubimov and understanding of his artistic magnetism dated from the year of my Fulbright Fellowship in Russia, 1971-72 when my fiancée, future wife Larisa Zalesova used her whiles and feminine charm to secure for us places on the stairs of a sold-out performance of Hamlet in the Taganka Theater starring the bard Vladimir Vysotsky…

From the mid-1990s, when Lyubimov was back in Moscow once again running the theater he had created and enjoying the patronage of the all-powerful Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and support from oligarchs including Boris Berezovsky, my wife and I established close relations with Yuri and his wife Katalin based on my position as Country Manager, Russia of wine and spirits companies Seagrams, then Diageo-United Distillers. In this position, within the heading of corporate sponsorship, I was able to provide necessary supplies to the receptions that were otherwise proscribed from the budgets of state supported institutions. In my to be published memoirs of life in Moscow during the 1990s I include diary entries from our meetings with Lyubimov including during the 80th birthday party for Alexander Solzhenitsyn on stage (1996) and the meeting with Boris Berezovsky in Lyubimov’s offices to discuss the funds from the Golden Mask awarded to the theater.


Who is who?

The circle of acquaintances mentioned here is representative of the odd assortment of Russian dissident writers, philosophers, musicians and artists who circulated, settled in Belgium, France, Germany and the USA during the 1980s. Several had links to Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Maksimov –  Vladimir Maksimov, novelist, founder of Kontinent magazine, died in Paris in 1995 aged 64

Aksyonov –   Vasily Aksyonov, novelist, stripped of Soviet citizenship, based in Washington in 1987, died in Moscow, 2009

Philippe  –   Philippe Hirschhorn, born 1946, Riga – died 1996, Brussels. Virtuoso violinist, winner of the First Prize, Queen Elisabeth International Musical Competition in Brussels, 1967 after which he defected to Belgium. Married to Nina Alexeyeva, artist, Leningrad. Close friends of ours in the 1990s.

Galya / Igor Khmelevsky – mathematicians, taught in Central Africa within Soviet exchange programs, defected in the 1960s and settled in Belgium where they hosted many dissident gatherings at their home in Namur to which my wife and I were frequent visitors.