The great Russian/Soviet tenor Sergei Lemeshev is well known in the West as "Lensky" from the main Soviet recording of Eugene Onegin (1955, with G. Vishnevskaya, E. Belov, conductor B. Khaikin). Meanwhile, for Russians, Lemeshev is much more than an operatic tenor; he is considered one of the greatest singers in Russian history, a truly national voice, like Feodor Chalyapin was for pre-revolutionary Russia.

Thirty years after Lemeshev’s death he is still loved and admired; his name gradually became a common symbol of vocal excellence—"to sing like Lemeshev" is what people say when they hear a beautiful, freely flowing voice.

On this site, a reader can (1) discover how Lemeshev, who was born to a very poor peasant family, made his impressive career at the Bolshoi, (2) learn what it was that made him the greatest star for millions of Soviet people, and (3) find out what it was like to be a famous tenor in the USSR. Also, one can read about his beliefs, his personal life and his huge army of fans.

The main part of the material comes from Lemeshev’s memoirs Put k iskusstvu (The Way to Art (1968), as well as from his articles. Initially, this site was to have been an attempt to translate several chapters from his book. However, I later chose to add many different facts and anecdotes, along with the personal reminiscences of many people who knew Lemeshev or worked with him: singers, conductors, and fans alike. I hope the result will be informative for everyone interested in the Soviet period of the Bolshoi theater.


I would like to thank Professor Edmund St. Austell, the author of the blog Great Opera Singers, for his invaluable help in translating Lemeshev’s biography to English. His profound knowledge of vocal technique and operatic styles was an inspiration to me .

I would also like to thank the many opera lovers whose interest in the history of the Bolshoi Theater encouraged me to work on this project.

Natalia Bukanova

понедельник, 2 апреля 2012 г.

2. From Shoemaker's Shop to Cavalry School

All  men from the villages of the Tver district had seasonal work, because agricultural labor, even though it was hard, did not pay very much. Shoemaking was the occupation of most of them.  Usually shoemakers from Tver went to Moscow and worked near the Iverskiye gates, right on the street, and were famous both for their skills and the quickness with which they worked. (Clients stood beside them on one foot, leaning against the wall, waiting for their shoes to be repaired.) 

Shoemakers. End of the 19th century

But Akulina's  youngest brother Ivan was more successful – he  earned enough money to have  an apartment and a workshop in St. Petersburg, where he took Sergei in February of 1914. For Sergei it was not only an opportunity to learn the craft and to earn money, but it provided  him with a flood of new impressions. He left the countryside and saw a railroad for the first time in his life. "[…] In my imagination a railroad was something huge , made of solid iron. What was my surprise, when I saw just two thin rails leading far away! I genuinely wondered at the skills of an engineer, able to drive a train over them, and then of course I immediately thought, "What if I change my occupation? After all, I'm not a shoemaker yet. Why not become an engineer?"[…] The train came and my uncle crammed me into the third bunk in the car, right under the ceiling, where I listened to the rumble of wheels with fear and awe until I fell asleep. The beauty of St. Petersburg enchanted him too, though he had no time to admire the city, as he had to begin to work immediately.   

The job of a servant at a shoemaker’s workshop was hard. As a rule, children were exploited and abused. Fyodor Chaliapin, who had been a shoemaker  too, remembered hunger and frequent severe punishments as an integral part of that period of his childhood. 

 A typical scene in the shoemaker's shop.
 "A newcomer", painting by I. Bogdanov, 1893.


Lemeshev was lucky, because his own uncle was the master. Nevertheless, Sergei barely had time to rest. "My uncle's apartment consisted of three rooms. He lent one of them, lived with his family in another; the third room was equipped as a workshop and also served as a lodging place for those foremen who had no families. My place was in the hallway.              

I was well fed, wore decent clothes, but worked a lot, serving all five foremen, running to shops and customers and learning the craft of shoemaking in fits and starts. As it turned out, if you wanted to do so, you could master the art of cutting out shoes. Within a year I became a foreman's apprentice. Later, when I read Chekhov's story "Vanka," I involuntary remembered those years of my childhood. Like he [the hero of the story ] I felt sad and bitter, living so far from my village, and I wanted  to write a letter to my mother, asking her to take me back home. But I understood that I had to earn money, so I suppressed complaints and home-sickness".     

 Sergei's uncle Ivan.
Nevsky avenue, 149 - the building where there was Ivan's workshop.


     Sergei's first photo, taken in St. Petersburg. 1914.     

His efforts were rewarded in the second year of work : he earned 30 rubles, a good sum of money for a peasant at that time, and brought it to his mother.

Aside from hard work , there were brighter moments, owing mostly to cheap shows and the entertainments of St. Petersburg.

"There was a 'Cinematograph' not far from our home. This word enchanted me just with its sound. At moments of rest I wandered around the building that had such an alluring name, looked avidly at advertisements and envied the people who entered there. One day my uncle  and his three-year-old son, along with the foremen, also went there. They did not take me with them, of course, but their endless talk about it kept me in a state of constant agitation." 

Then suddenly I got lucky! My cousin, a very spoiled child, became obstreperous on the third day after that, and demanded to be taken again to the "theater," as they called cinema then. My uncle sent me with him and gave us ten kopecks for one ticket. The child soon fell asleep, sitting on my lap, while I enjoyed the absurd adventures of comedians who made the audience erupt in wild laughter.  After tasting that temptation, I could not imagine my life without “theater." Fortunately, my cousin was compliant; many times I said to him, "Alyosha, tell your dad you want to go to the theater,"  and  enjoyed film at my uncle's expense. 

Once I came across the "Little Palace" theater,  where singing cabaret satirists  and dancers  performed before the movie started. I came out of  there absolutely astounded! It was then that the idea of  performing on stage came into my mind for the first time. I considered what I could do.  I could not dance; singing was very easy for me though. At the same time I decided to become  a cabaret satirist! [Russian satirists at that time (“coupletistes”) always sang their satires. It was another singing genre, though primitive as a musical.]

During the breaks, when the foremen went to drink tea and left me alone (oh, how I waited for those moments!) I began my concert. I tried hard: I sang songs, satirical songs, made faces, danced a bit, and it seemed to me that I could do everything! Frequent trips to the cinema with my cousin gave me more and more new impressions and I felt as though I was a real artist."          

        In the third year of  work he regularly sent most of his wages to his mother; the rest he spent on shows. It all came to an end with World War I and the  Bourgeois Revolution in February 1917.

Tsar Nicholas was dethroned, and the situation on the front became so serious that they started to draft middle-aged and family men. Sergei's  uncle and the foremen were called up too. The workshop closed, and Lemeshev came back to his village and continued to work as a shoemaker in a local brigade. Traveling from one town to another became dangerous, especially after the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

In the Spring of 1918 the Soviets came to Staroye Knyazevo.  The landlords had fled, and their land was divided between the peasants. The poorest families, including the Lemeshevs, got their lots. As they did not have a horse or a plow, they had to borrow them from their neighbors. At the same time, Akulina continued to work as a farm laborer. 

 Peasants dragging furniture from the landlord's house.

 Expropriation of crops.
Paintings by I. Vladimirov. the 1920's.


At the beginning, peasants were enthusiastic about the Revolution because similar social processes were going on all over the country. But soon the Bolsheviks showed their true intentions: they started to draft men into the Red Army and expropriated up to two thirds of the crops. Peasants, who had hoped to begin a peaceful life, were enraged. Since thousands of them had deserted during WWI, they were armed and started riots. With the beginning of the Civil war many of them joined the White army. It was a period of chaos, hunger and great violence, but as a small, remote village Knyazevo was a relatively safe place and even had a cultural life.            

Then, in 1918, Ekaterina Mikhailovna Prilootskaya (a wealthy peasant's daughter, who had studied at gymnasium, also an ardent Bolshevik) organized an amateur theatre at the parish school. The Bolsheviks considered theatre a good vehicle for education and propaganda. As a director, Prilootskaya staged several classical plays and musical shows. Of course, Lemeshev, who attended every rehearsal and show, soon got his first roles. Folksongs and cabaret numbers that he learned in St. Petersburg brought him considerable success. In his book he described a rehearsal of a classic Ostrovsky play entitled "Poverty is Not a Vice":

"Under the guidance of teachers, we wrote down the text. After that, sitting at the table , everyone read their role. Then rehearsals began. All the actors performed, while looking at their copybooks […] Of course, Ekaterina Mikhailovna's knowledge of theater was limited to her experience as an audience member, but she had sharp intuition and found a right way to arouse an elementary scenic state of mind in us. Dialogues between  us went like this:

-         Tell me please, what part are you playing?  Who are you? – she asked.
-         I'm "Mitya".
-         Who is Mitya?
-         He is a shop assistant.
-         Are you afraid of your master?
-         Yes, I am
-         Well, if you are afraid,  play it!

There was nothing new for me in being afraid of a master, so it was easy to play. Naturally, the requirements were the most primitive: if you could say your lines loud enough, with the help of a prompter, you were ready! And the audience was undemanding – our villagers; they became acquainted with theatre for the first time and loudly expressed their pleasure. All our performances were hugely successful.

But at the end of 1918 there was an event in our village to which I owed all my future destiny, -  wrote Lemeshev about  the arrival of Nickolai Alexandrovich Kvashnin and his family.           

Nickolai Kvashnin was an architect who had taken part in designing and construction  of several important buildings in Moscow, in the Art Deco style.  His arrival was, in fact, a return, because long before the Revolution he had had an estate not far from the adjacent village. In six buildings, which he also designed himself, he founded a professional school and various workshops for peasants. 

 Majolica decoration by Nickolai Kvashnin.

       At school, young peasants studied  general subjects and drawing; at the workshops they made exquisite furniture—with the help of the best woodcarvers of the village. So it had continued until the Revolution. Then, at that point, he had to choose either to accept the new regime and ideology, or to leave Russia. Like many noble and middle class people, who hated the Russian monarchy and did not want to  emigrate, he chose the former. Kvashnin asked Lunacharsky, the Commissar of  Popular Enlightenment, for permission to teach at the school and he received it. But the peasants did not understand  his intention to teach them. They treated Kvashnin as a landlord, who had come back to obtain his property. He was beaten several times and starved, though some people sympathized with him and secretly brought him food. Sergei's mother soon began to work at the school as a cleaning lady and a cook, and the family moved to the log cabin near the Kvashnin mansion. (Lemeshev did not write in his memoirs either about peasant riots against the Bolsheviks, nor about Kvashnin's troubles. Information of this kind was inappropriate in a book written during the Soviet period.)

 Eugenia Nickolayevna and Nickolai Alexandrovich Kvashnin. 1912.

Nevertheless, Kvashnin did not change his mind, showing true bravery, and continued to teach only a few pupils. Little by little, peasants began to respect him and let their children attend his school. But it was Kvashnin's hobby that made his school a cultural center  for several villages. He was a passionate lover of theater, and he organized another amateur theater, which was far superior to that of Ekaterina Prilootskaya. His wife Eugenia Nickolayevna had studied opera singing at the Saratov Conservatory, and  their 22-year-old daughter Galina was a musician and amateur actress. With their artistic abilities, Kvashnin's skills as a designer, and with the help of woodcarvers and painters from the school, his theater made a huge impression on the villagers. Soon Sergei joined the company.

"Kvashnin attended our shows; once  after the concert at which I sang folksongs, he invited me to his home. (He had also heard me before , when I used to sing while rowing along the river.) There, the whole family listened to me and I was invited to join their theater. At one rehearsal, when I was in especially good form, Nickolai Alexandrovich said, " Don't you think, comrades, that this boy should study seriously to become an opera singer?"
Everyone agreed, and soon I began to take singing lessons from Eugenia Nickolayevna, who was also a good pianist."

Several other young singers were invited to Kvashnin's theater, but only Sergei took it seriously. Perhaps it was connected with his occupational crisis—after four years, he had come to hate shoemaking.

"At the beginning, I was awfully surprised. For the first time in my life I heard that one had to study singing, and for no less than for five years! However, the idea fascinated me. From the Kvashnins I learned a lot about the Bolshoi theatre (for many years before the Revolution they had  had season tickets), including the fact that amazed me the most— as it turned out, people did not speak there, but sang!. I remember that I asked how that could be.       
Very easily, - said Eugenia Nickolayevna, - did you fish today?       
Yes, I did, from early morning.       
What did you catch?
Two pike.
-     So  sing this, "Today I caught two big pike"
"I was really confused, and did not know how to start, so she sang the line herself.  I just stood rooted to the spot, but later, when I was alone, I tried to sing everything that came into my mind. [...]  Knowing operatic repertoire very well, the Kvashnins told me the stories of many operas and described the life and performances of many singers.  They showed me their photographs, and suddenly a new world, whose existence I had not even suspected, opened up for me. [Note: It seems strange that the Kvashnins did not have records. Perhaps their collection had been expropriated or perished during riots in Moscow]  Then I first heard the name Sobinov  They showed me photographs of him, and I began to dream about opera. Besides, they gave me "Eugene Onegin" to read and said that an opera based on the book had been composed, where there was a wonderful role for Lensky, which I would be able to sing someday. They played the piano reduction for me. 

No matter what I did from then on – fished or chopped firewood – I always thought about the operatic stage, which seemed to me an unattainable and beautiful dream. One day I sat at home learning a part for the Kvashnin theater and kept on repeating the line which I liked the most, "What a monkey that is." My mother came home from work, lay down to rest, and during a moment of silence, while I was thinking up another intonation, she said—so expressively that I will never forget it:
" I wish I could take a good chunk of firewood  and whack you on the back with it so you would remember your monkey forever."

Sergei spent days at the Kvashnins,'  (his romance with their daughter Galina was a contributing factor.) Traditionally, peasants thought of a professional actor as something between a swindler and a gambler. They kept on telling Akulina that her son had chosen the wrong way and was about "to perish."

"My mother's words perturbed me. I thought, "Perhaps I should stop dreaming about singing and begin to do real business, like everyone else around." The thought depressed me…I was upset and could not control my voice at Eugenia Nickolayevna's lesson; nothing came out of it." Eugenia noticed his condition, talked to Akulina and calmed her down, promising that Sergei would earn big money if he became an opera singer. "My mother got silent for some time and when she began to grumble again, I already had the strength not to give in."         

As is common with talented people, his education and cultural development progressed at  great speed under proper guidance. "I read many books  that Kvashnin picked for me; I began to study French and Italian, and advanced in singing. I also sang some pieces in Italian, and learned Lensky's aria. It was my first operatic aria. Then I added more arias to my repertoire:  Levko (from "May Night" by Rimsky-Korsakov), Vladimir Igorevich (from Borodin's "Prince Igor"), Nadir's romance, and several songs by Tchaikovsky. […] When I entered the Moscow Conservatory  later, it felt somewhat like the Kvashnin's home, which meant there had been an atmosphere of true professionalism and love of art there […]They inspired a firm faith in me that I would become a singer, and that I must study in Moscow [...] I have always felt, within my heart, a deep gratitude toward my dear teachers.
However, who could reveal to me then the whole measure of work and volume of knowledge required to become a singer? I did not have an example. My horizon was limited by personal experience and my experience did not extend further than the amateur theater and the peasant audience that always  greeted me with applause. That was enough for me to consider myself a singer! What else did I really need? I had a repertoire, success was evident… So I decided to win recognition in town."     

In December of 1919, Lemeshev walked 50 kilometers to Tver to take part in a concert for the Communist party members there. He had heard about the concert and got the address of the workers' club from the newspapers.  The winter was severe that year, as usually happens in Russia during revolutions and wars. He wore typical peasant winter clothes— a short coat, cotton trousers, huge old high shoes and a battered fur cap. The journey took all day, and the  temperature was -30 C.  He arrived in Tver at twilight, and stayed for the night at the house of  a family friend. On the following morning Lemeshev appeared at the club, where an administrator looked suspiciously at his clothes for a moment. He finally agreed to audition Sergei, and then gave him permission to sing."I walked on the stage bravely enough, not feeling any fear yet. As I had usually done in the village, I began with Lensky's aria. I sang it and heard applause. The next was Levko' aria. The applause became more enthusiastic. Then I sang the folksongs "To ne veter vetku klonit" ( "It's Not a Wind That Bends the Branch") and "Troyka."  Now my success became sensational. They did not let me go. I sang Nadir's romance and some Tchaikovsky songs. During the interval people surrounded me […] They gave me several notes with positive reviews and instructed me to go to some organizations that would help get me assigned to study in Moscow. Inspired by this unexpected luck, I started visiting the organizations the following morning, but faced the first "bumps" on my artistic path. At one office they asked me to come back the next day; there was a conference going on in another; at the third I was told that singing was nonsense and I'd better find myself a more useful business. There wasn't anybody at the club.
The next day, when I ran out of money and food ( apparently that helped me to understand that nothing could be achieved quickly), I started back for my village. I got to the gates by tram, and then, hurried along by  the wind, did not walk but ran. In the town the thermometer showed -37, and a piercing wind blew in the open field. Obviously, I was not dressed for the season, while distances between villages were 8-10 kilometers. Sometimes it seemed to me that I would never reach home, just freeze to death on the road, but that thought made the blood rush to my face and warmed me. I ran the 50 kilometers from Tver in six hours.
I did not say anything to my mother, knowing that I would not find any sympathy from her, though I did describe all my adventures to Kvashnin. Nickolai Alexandrovich  took a sober view of  events: "The times are difficult – the Civil war, the intervention,  everything is in ruins. Besides, you know too little to ask for special attention. But it's good that you were received so well at the concert. You must work."         

In May, Sergei walked to Tver again. As the Bolsheviks had expropriated the major part of the crop, villages were on the verge of hunger. The Lemeshevs had neither money nor food and it was impossible for him to stay in  the countryside. He was sitting on a park bench, thinking about possible ways to get an education and to enter  the Conservatory, when he saw  a young man from Knyazevo, who studied at the Tver Cavalry school. He persuaded Sergei to apply to the school.                                                           

 Ukrainian and Russian posters calling up peasants to the Red Army cavalry.

The Red Army desperately needed commanders and promised cadets a profitable, though risky job in the future, along with an education, 50 rubles per month, meals, and an elegant uniform. "It was alluring to show off in such a costume before girls, and I yielded to temptation – I was less than 18 then! Besides, I loved horses . But I did not relax my efforts and learned that the Conservatory did not admit students in Spring."

Before the examinations, everyone had to prove their loyalty to the regime by studying for two months at the Communist Party School, where they learned Marxism, among other subjects. However, it was not Marxism, but a good knowledge of literature that helped Lemeshev to become a cadet.

In 1919 no one knew who would win the Civil War. His decision to join the Red Army can be explained by the fact that  he would inevitably have been drafted, and under less favorable circumstances. As farm laborers, the poorest category of peasants, the Lemeshevs did not have anything to lose with the Soviets, so, apparently Sergei was not concerned with the opinions of other villagers, especially those who had never shown enough consideration for his mother to have tried to help her. The main reason for his decision, though, was the education that the Bolsheviks had promised to everyone. As it turned out later, this was a smart decision.

 Sergei Lemeshev in 1919.

At school they studied general and military subjects; the curriculum was largely left over from the Imperial army: riding, sword fighting, and marksmanship. Lessons on general subjects were in the morning, and after that, the hours of drill on the field began.

The school had its own chorus and an amateur theater; both groups rehearsed every evening in the club.

"I used to wait for that hour all day (though I studied with pleasure and successfully enough) […] I don't know why, but at the beginning I hesitated and only listened to others, not daring to admit that I could sing too. Perhaps it was because of several cadets from Ukraine, who had enviably powerful voices.[…] The club's director at first did not pay any attention to me. After asking what type of voice I had, he sent me to the chorus. Of course, I was terribly insulted. I had for a long time considered myself a leading singer. I had a repertoire, dreamed about the role of Lensky, could almost speak Italian, and he sent me to the chorus!…But I made friends with the Ukrainians and sang them my songs one day. Though they had bigger voices, my singing somehow interested them and they advised the director to classify me as a leading performer.
When I felt more at home, I thought that perhaps  at least I would put up a good show.
I attended chorus rehearsals punctually , came to listen to an orchestra of folk instruments every evening; also I began to work with a pianist […], repeating my old repertoire.
 They rarely criticized me. So I prepared for my first concert. It turned out to be dull, however. For the opening number I chose the so-called "Gypsy" romance "The Tender Kisses are Forgotten," which an ancient lady—the director's assistant—had advised me to learn. She also gave me the sheet music. I had already got used to military discipline and kept on singing although I was choking.  It was too low for my voice. That did not bring any success and  I was upset.  I started thinking and began to ask myself whose fault it was. I thought and thought and came to the conclusion that, most likely, the fault was mine. On the next day I brought my old repertoire and began to work again. However, it was difficult to combine singing and studying. Sometimes I got so tired in the evening that I could not think about songs, but youth helped overcome everything.
The year and a half which I spent at Cavalry school was very tense. A three-year course in education was equal to college as far as the number of general subjects was concerned. The humanities were easy for me; it was worse with mathematics and physics. For example, I couldn't understand the idea of  filling a  pool from one faucet and pouring the water out from another at the same time.  I could only lean on my memory and  learn by heart the different ways of doing problems. The most important thing was not to confuse pools with freight cars. Perhaps the reason for my difficulty with precise subjects was that all my dreams were about the stage and singing. After each performance I was in a fog. For two or three days I couldn't think about anything else.
And now when I try to recall what attracted me so much to singing and the stage, I can honestly say that first of all it was the music that thrilled me with its emotionality.[...] Folksongs, with their soul-gripping lyrics, taught me to understand what I sang, what I wanted to express. Operatic arias made me think about the person I was singing to. So, intuitively, I found a way to understand the meaning of the music. That fascinated me during performances and was perhaps transmitted to the audience. The possibility of living moments from someone else's life on stage, or of sharing someone else's mood, put me into an abstracted state of mind for a couple of  days.”

Aside from singing in the amateur theater, he attended the Tver Music School in the evenings. Also, he could hear the best singers of the day performing for workers and soldiers. The Tver Textile Fabric Club had a stage, where famous tenors like A. Bogdanovich and S. Yudin sang in "Rigoletto, "Traviata," and "Faust."

"Of course, operas toured with a piano, without orchestra and no more than one or two times per month," wrote Lemeshev. "Right there in Tver I was lucky enought to hear the greatest singers of the Bolshoy in concert: Sobinov, Nezhdanova and Sergei Migai. They all had tremendous success with the local audience.  Sobinov's concert was announced in the summer of 1921 in Tver's theater. I managed to get there, though with great difficulty. He was greeted with a prolonged ovation as soon as he appeared on stage. In those years there were many people in Tver, who had come from Moscow or Petrograd [formerly St. Petersburg] and  knew Sobinov's art very well. When he began to sing I was all ears, expecting to hear an extraordinary voice, and what I heard exceeded my expectation.[…] I didn't think there could be a human voice of such beauty and charm.  At that time Sobinov was still in very good form and effortlessly sang even the most difficult pieces, such as Werther's "Pourquoi me réveiller," Lohengrin's "In Fernem Land,"  Wilhelm's aria from "Mignon,"  and of course, his incomparable Lensky."

It seems unbelievable that the greatest stars of Russian opera performed at  the  workers' club, but during the period of the Civil war and Military Communism they had to work for food, and it was more profitable to perform in provinces than in the cities. Some of them, like Sobinov and Nezhdanova, embraced the Revolution with enthusiasm. For many years before that, Sobinov had sponsored revolutionaries . Nezhdanova was proud that she happened to sing at the same meetings where Lenin spoke. She wrote, referring to that period, and to her success with proletarian audiences, that "People came to love me, and with the rations that I got for my performances at various organizations I could live and support my family. They used to pay me 10 pounds of bread, 5 pounds of sugar or butter.  At that time, these things were more valuable than money."            

Lemeshev did well at both schools .The commanders appreciated his talent and sometimes exempted him from heavy work (such as unloading freight cars in the pouring rain), if he had to sing in a concert the next day. In June of 1921, cadets from all courses began to prepare a big concert for a yearly graduation ceremony. The director of the club decided to stage a popular musical play, "Ivanov Pavel," and Sergei got his first main role. But not long before the ceremony, there was an incident that nearly ruined the show.

"During off-duty evening hours, we usually walked in the central park, attracting the attention of girls with our uniforms. We became acquainted with them, and  they would invite us home and give us something to eat. I have to admit that the school's meals were not enough. What healthy young man, galloping all day in the field, would have the strength to refuse home-made pastries? Once, two friends of mine and I stayed late at the party and came back to the barracks at 3:00 in the morning. We already had become quite experienced on such matters and had learned to deceive our tutors. It was easy – a rolled-up overcoat placed under the blanket gives the impression of a sleeping person. Usually the trick worked."

That time an officer on guard duty discovered their trick and took the overcoats as evidence . On the next day, an order was read in front of the ranks: Sergei and his friends were sentenced to 15 days of solitary confinement and 15 days without leave. 

"So I got acquainted with the cell. It was an extremely unpleasant room. Its only furniture was a stool; a bed was attached to the wall and you could use it only after Retreat was sounded. Water dripped down the walls (it was so damp there) and somewhere up high there was a small,  dim window. I tried to read Gogol's "Dead souls," but could not master more than three pages. I shuddered to think that I would sit there for half a month! Suddenly an idea came to my mind—now would be a good time to get sick!  I began to think about it and soon felt as if I were not well. I concentrated on the sensation. My heart started throbbing, my throat got sore, swallowing became painful. Within half an hour I fell completely ill and knocked at the door, calling for a doctor. His assistant came, checked my pulse and said that he would report to the doctor. In a weak voice I asked him to hurry up, knowing I would not keep my "illness" for very long. Twenty minutes later the old doctor arrived. At that moment I was struggling with all my might against my health, thinking up new symptoms.       
They caught you, nightingale. Why? – he asked.
In the saddest tones, I told him the story of "Ivanov Pavel"  "the pastries," my arrest, and the illness. He gave me a note and sent me to the hospital.[ Note: The epidemic of Spanish flu, which took 3.000.000 lives in Russia,  had ended the previous year. So the doctor’s decision was natural. ] While walking  to the isolation ward I lost my "tonsillitis" and on lying down on the hospital bed I did not feel any pain in the throat, to my horror. Besides, several sick cadets began to tell funny stories and I laughed so much that I completely recovered.  On the following morning, before the doctor's round, I tried to think up the indisposition again, but this time the self-suggestion did not work. Nevertheless, the doctor left me in the isolation ward for one more day. On hearing about my troubles, the girls passed me a parcel of pastries and I enjoyed myself. However,  at the end of the next day the doctor said, "Enough of that!" and my heart sank.  Back to the cell.
With sadness I changed from hospital clothes to my uniform and dolefully plodded  to the school grounds. The first person I met there was the club's director.    
   Well! You've recovered! This is good, hurry up to the rehearsal; we can't proceed without you!
I didn't realize at first that it was a chance to get out of the cell,  and I told him I was under arrest.    
- All right, I'll persuade them to release you for rehearsals.
Then I finally understood that the moment had come to use my position as a leading singer.
-         Yes, of course – I said with a sigh, knowing very well that the show was  about to be cancelled. “ But how can I act and even sing, if I have to go back to the cell? I had better just stay there. But if you could set me free completely…”
-         I'll try, he said, and, determined, he headed for the Commissar's Office.
The ten minutes he was gone seemed to me an eternity. His happy look was my reward, however. Hurray! The arrest was cancelled! I burst into the dormitory on the third floor, grabbed a copybook with the text and sped to the rehearsal. On my way, I came across the Battalion Commander. He asked me shortly:
-         Have you recovered?
-         Yes, I have, - I reported joyously.
-         Why not in the cell?
-       Comrade Commissar cancelled my arrest,  I replied even more sonorously.
-         What the hell is going on?– he grumbled, but to revoke the Commissar's order was not in his power."

 Graduates of Tver Cavalry school, 1923.

Two weeks later the graduation  ceremony took place in the presence of many civilians, and the show was a success. After that, Lemeshev sang a concert. " I regretted that my repertoire was not large enough, but the audience helped: they called me back for encores. Then, traditionally, there was a dance. Usually they began with a waltz, since not many people could dance the  mazurka. I was always shy about it too, but success inspired me so much that I bravely started to do cabrioles. It was then that I was noticed by the school's Director Nikiforov – a wonderful old man with a huge grey mustache. He stopped my dancing and asked me to come to his office next morning. All my joy disappeared at once! Why? What if they send me back to the cell? The thought poisoned the rest of the night for me.
The next morning, in a break between lessons, I reported precisely (though not too valiantly), "Cadet Lemeshev at your service, Sir!”  Imagine my surprise when he asked :      
Tell me, cadet Lemeshev, what do you most wish to become– a cavalryman or a singer?
I did not have to think to answer the question. But how to reply without offending the old cavalryman?    
- It's good to be a cavalryman, - I began firmly,  but to be a singer… At that moment I felt that my tactfulness was leaving me. I got confused and finished the phrase in a silly way, "…is good too".   
  Well' – he smiled,  the Commissar and I agree that it's good to be a singer too.
I forgot about the command "at ease" and stood "at attention," feeling that something very important was about to be resolved. Nevertheless, I was not prepared to hear, "The Commanders have decided to direct you to study at the Moscow Conservatory."
To say that I was glad is an understatement. I simply fell silent and even became scared, because my dream was so close now! Several days later, the order dismissing me from the school and directing me to the Conservatory was read in front of the ranks.  They gave me a ticket to Moscow and money. I visited my mother, said good-bye and—completely beside myself with joy—started for Moscow to seek my fortune. But, as I reflect on it now, I was being over-optimistic.  As though in Moscow they were only waiting for my arrival!”


S. Lemeshev “Put k iskusstvu” 1968

E. Grosheva “S. Ya . Lemeshev” 1987.

V. Vasil’yev. “S. Lemeshev. Vospominan’ya, fotografyi< dokumenty.” 1999.

Copyright © 2012 by Natalia  A. Bukanova.  No part of this blog may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the author.

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