Our House

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Our building was special. It looked grim and gray, surrounded by a fence made of metal pipes. It was the prestigious House of Filmmakers, in which all residents were prominent film directors, producers, actors, writers, and cinematographers.

All the interesting activities took place in the courtyard. There were lots of kids, and here I fell in love for the first time—with Fedya Provorov, a boy with clear blue eyes, the son of the cameraman Fiodor Provorov, who lived in the house next door. His mother was a great beauty, also with blue eyes. She often wandered alone in the courtyard; everyone knew that she was mentally unbalanced.

In the evenings, the residents came out. There were many famous documentary and feature filmmakers among them: Dziga Vertov, Alexander Medvedkin, Roman Karmen, Mikhail Romm, Yuli Raizman, Grigori Roshal, Efim Dzigan, Alexander Ptushko, Boris Volchek . . .

As a child, I felt that all our filmmakers were part of one big family. They all loved one another, were such good friends, and enjoyed working together. Later I learned how foolish my illusions had been. For example, Roshal, who directed many films that became ''Soviet classics,'' could not stand Raizman and Romm. Volchek rarely appeared in the courtyard. I guess he didn't want to run into his former wives, Vera and Era, who also lived in the building. He was at the time married to Elena Alexandrovna.

Karmen had an astonishingly beautiful wife, Nina Ivanovna. She was like a statue. We knew that she was his second wife. He had divorced his first, the daughter of Emelyan Yaroslavsky, a Party bigwig. He had a son from his first marriage, and I later met him at vgik, where he was in a class ahead of me. Nina Ivanovna had a son by Karmen too, called Sasha, who was my age, and we were friends growing up. We are still friends.

Nina Ivanovna created all kinds of problems for Karmen. She was always involved with other men, including a passionate affair with Stalin's son Vassily. That could have ended very badly for Karmen, but he was unsinkable and survived.

The most cheerful person in the building was an esteemed documentary filmmaker, Arsha Ovanesova. You could hear her rollicking laughter every evening, year-round. She was the center of a large group that enjoyed her humor and love of life. It was a great shock for everyone when she had a nervous breakdown.

The Ptushko family lived directly below us. I was friends with Yulya Ptushko, who was a year older and known for her sophistication. When I was six, she invited me to her seventh birthday party. I asked her what she wanted.

''If you're giving me a book, just remember that I read only Schiller and Shakespeare.''

I never reached her lofty heights.

Ptushko, a great storyteller in film, strolled around the courtyard, big, fat, and roly-poly. He also laughed very loudly—he and Arsha were the soul of the courtyard party. There was fun every night. It seemed that it would last forever.

Ptushko not only directed fantasy films filled with wonders and special effects but also enjoyed making magical objects. He could turn ordinary seashells into beautiful jewelry, and he gave Mother a brooch he made. Now I own it.

He was known as a model family man. His wife was a voluptuous woman, a singer whose vocalizing could be heard in the mornings: ''La-la-la-lalalala.'' I still hear it in my dreams sometimes. And then, suddenly, after Stalin's death, when everything in the country eased up, including morals, Ptushko left his wife and daughter, moved two alcoholics into their apartment, and moved out to marry our neighbor from the third floor. She was the sound engineer in his film group. What a shock! The domestic idyll cracked.

The same thing soon happened again. Two apartments in our building were given to people from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Across the landing from us lived Fyodor Molochkov, head of the protocol department at the ministry, and above us, Alexander Pavlov, the Soviet ambassador to France. I was very good friends with Alyosha Molochkov, Fyodor's son. We were the same age. Every morning his father got into the huge car that came to pick him up, and then he waved to his wife, who was watching from the window. My mother always said to my father, ''You just rush out the door. You never look back. That Molochkov is a real family man. Just look at how he says good-bye to his wife.''

We later learned that the ideal husband had yet another family. When he was ambassador to Switzerland, he started an affair with his future second wife, Klavdia Romanovna, who worked at the embassy, either in the dining room or in the accounting office. Stories like this are a dime a dozen nowadays, but back then, they were earth-shattering. Until the mid-1950s there was no such word as ''lover'' in the vocabulary of Soviet film and literature. Such things simply did not happen in Soviet society, and the few straying comrades who violated the moral principles established by the communist ideology were denounced at Party and other public meetings and sometimes even fired. Molochkov was farsighted: he did not leave his first family until he had retired.

As I now think back, all those cheerful pictures of life in our courtyard date to the post-Stalin period. In the Stalin years, people lived more quietly and gathered less frequently. That was the safer course. A wrong word could get you imprisoned.

Every entrance to the building had a concierge. Aunt Klava, as children called her, lived right in the vestibule. She had a couch, a table, and a chair. She knew everything about everyone. She knew where every visitor was going, what they talked about, why they were there. I later learned that all the concierges worked as informers. When my parents were planning a cruise on the Danube in the 1960s, Aunt Klava was called to kgb headquarters, where she had to tell them whether she thought my parents could safely be allowed out of the country together and whether there was any risk they would defect. They also questioned my nanny, Lizochka, as she told us a few years later.

Nothing but gloominess remains in my memory of the Stalin years. The house was a grim gray, and everyone was exhausted by the war, by life, by the deadly fear of being arrested.

I remember the night in 1948 when they took Grigory Irsky, a hunchbacked, kind, and very well-educated little man. He was in charge of the production department at the ministry and the head of a laboratory at nikei. Father and he were friends. His wife, Nina, was left behind with two daughters. She earned money by repairing stockings—there even was a market for that craft. The other residents in the building helped her secretly with money. They were afraid to give support openly, and none of the residents ever invited her to their home. But Nina came to our home. Her daughter Irishka was two years younger than me. They all used to visit us in our dacha. Once, Irishka was swinging on a gate and smashed her nose on the latch. She was very pretty and was worried that she would turn ugly. We all kept telling her, ''Don't worry! You'll always be as pretty as you are now.''

I even remember Dziga Vertov. He used to sit on a bench near our entryway, always leaning on a walking stick, always gloomy and reserved. He seemed hopelessly ancient to me. It was much later that I realized he had died at the young age of fifty-five. Seda Pumpyanskaya, who worked with him, told me that when they found out he had cancer (he wasn't told, although he knew he was very sick), he was given sick leave. He said, ''No more than three months. Otherwise, I'll get fired.''

Exactly three months later, he came back to work, spent a few days, and went back to bed. But he had to work; otherwise he would starve. His wife, Elizaveta Svilova, was an editor, working for the weekly film magazine News of the Day. And Vertov—master filmmaker, pillar of world documentary film, creator of a new language and pathfinder—ended his life editing newsreels, cli-ched, monotonous, and official. Well, perhaps he managed to make them less routine, even though he couldn't change their real meaning. But he was not permitted to do what he really wanted to do and what he became famous for— artistic documentaries, such as his masterpiece, Man with a Movie Camera, and Enthusiasm.

On the other side of the wall of my room lived Alexander Medvedkin, although the entrance to his apartment was on a different stairway. He was a handsome man, tall, and with a military demeanor. He and Father were on very good terms, often laughing and telling stories. He played the mandolin and was full of cheer. I learned later that he had no particular reason to be cheerful. He lived a difficult life. Some of his films had been banned, and he was unable to bring many of his creative projects to fruition—but this did not change him as a human being. He was a legend in documentary film, because in the early 1930s he created a ''studio on a train''—the famous ''Medvedkin film train'' that traveled to factories and collective farms throughout Russia to create documentaries right on the spot.

In the late 1970s he was given the Lenin Prize, the highest state award, for some boring routine film. We were very happy for him, even though the award wasn't for his Happiness or Miracle Worker, films that had been made at the height of his powers in the 1930s and then had gathered dust on the shelves for decades. Medvedkin and I became friends despite the difference in age.

In 1988, I taped his video memoirs, playing his mandolin and singing Russian Civil War songs. He recounted his service in the Red Calvary and how he met his future wife, Vera Ivanovna, in a village, fell in love at first sight, and took her to the front lines, despite her family's objections. He also explained his daughter's unusual name, Chongara. In 1920, after a victory over the White Army commanded by General Peter Wrangel, he and his best friend swore to name their firstborns in honor of the battle site, the Isthmus of Chongar. After the end of the Civil War, he lost track of his friend but thought of him often.

After Medvedkin's death, I incidentally met a very interesting person who immediately attracted my attention because of his name. He was Chongar Blu-

menthal, who turned out to be the son of Medvedkin's army buddy. His father had survived the Civil War but died in one of Stalin's camps. A typical Soviet story.

The famous French director Chris Marker made a great film, The Last Bolshevik (1993), about Medvedkin and other flaming Lenin revolutionaries like him.

We had a few female cinematographers in our building—the striking Era Savelyeva, with amazing blue-green eyes, who worked in feature films, and Ottilia Reizman, who made newsreels after spending the war in a partisan unit. She went to war with Maria Sukhova, another camerawoman, who was killed while filming. Ottilia was a good-looking woman with a sturdy square build, full ofpower and life. Era and Ottilia had a great influence on me. I was dreaming of becoming a director of photography. The dream began when I was a little girl. The job seemed so romantic! In those years there were very few cine-matographers, not like now. There were probably no more than five hundred in the whole country, and more than a hundred had perished in the war.

Only VGIK trained camera people. You could count the women on your fingers: besides Savelyeva and Reizman, there were Margarita Pilikhina, a brilliant camerawoman in feature film who gave me her blessing; Antonina Egina, who worked at Mosfilm, usually as second camera; and Galina Monglovskaya, a documentarían with the Documentary Film Studio. That was it. It was very hard for women to get into vgik's cinematography program.

Our building also had many other cinema celebrities. For instance, Ada Voitsik was a movie star of the 1930s, beautiful, thin, tall, and elegant, with a tragic look. Her husband, Ivan Piriev, a famous film director, had abandoned her with their child, Erik, a good-looking boy, but a bit strange. He had played the tsar as a child in Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. Later he began drinking heavily and led a bohemian life. He eventually married, but that did not change his lifestyle; he still drank a lot. He died young of cirrhosis of the liver, leaving a little daughter, Masha. Ada Voitsik had trouble all her life: First with her son, and then with her granddaughter Masha, a beautiful but wild young woman. Ada was a tragic heroine not only on-screen but also in real life. Everyone in the building was sympathetic.

Our house was like a communal flat that spread over many floors. Everyone in all forty-two apartments knew everything about everyone else, commiserated together, and gossiped.

On the fourth floor on our side of the building lived Mikhail Romm with Elena Kuzmina and their daughter, Natasha. Below us were Irina Venzher and Yakov Poselsky, whose daughter was also called Natasha.

Later, when I was in college, I became friends with Irina Venzher. She told me many interesting things about the Documentary Film Studio and her life. I've forgotten almost all of them, but our late-night chats in her kitchen, her husky, smoky voice, the tea, and her infinite warmth and friendship will stay with me to the end of my days. I remained friends with her daughter, Natasha, and her husband, the talented geologist Georgi Reisner, who was the nephew of the famous writer and army commander Larissa Reisner.

Both Natasha and Galya Volchek—now artistic director of the Sovremen-nik, one of the best Russian theaters—were seven or eight years older than me, at that age a huge difference. We were all children of the same house. Now when I meet Galya, I have the feeling that we come from the same sandbox, even though we weren't very close as children. But I knew that she was studying theater. We used to wonder, how could she become an actress when she was not beautiful? But she grew into a handsome woman; married a talented actor, Yevgeny Evstigneyev; became famous herself; and gave birth to a son, Denis. We later learned that the couple divorced. All this was grist for the mill of the house. Natasha Romm married Sasha Alliluev, the nephew of Stalin's wife. They had a son, Misha, who died very young of blood cancer. All the surviving children of our House on Polyanka went to the funeral.

We felt we all were part of one family, and that sense of belonging remains.

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