The Artist at Home

Alla Bayanova on the Arbat

Wandering along the Arbat in Moscow, Elizabeth Kiem finds the residence of a Russian singer who spent a year in a concentration camp during World War II, and who claims never to have known her true home.

I was in Moscow, revisiting familiar streets in an unfamiliar time. I was on the Arbat, mumbling “Sitsev Vrazhek Lane, Sitsev Vrazhek Lane,” and wondering why it rang a bell. Whose bell was it ringing? I thought it might be Alla Bayanova’s, so that night I dug out a ratty address book from a past life and called her up.

She answered in that odd voice of an ancient little girl and I hurriedly explained that she probably wouldn’t remember me, among her many admirers, but that I hoped she would receive me all the same.

There was silence, then a sigh, and then the same instructions delivered a decade ago when I had first dialed her number. “Come see me tomorrow—but only after Santa Barbara.”

I was late the next night, delayed by the fact that Bayanova does not live on Sitsev Vrazhek Lane (who does? I still wonder). Her street had been renamed in my absence and though she warned me of the fact, I was hard-pressed to find anyone in the vicinity who had heard it called by its new name, which I mispronounced differently each time I asked.

“Everything’s changed,” Bayanova shrugged when I finally arrived. “And everything’s the same,” she added—Russia’s own Edith Piaf.


* * *

I no longer remember what I had expected of Bayanova before I met her a decade ago. I knew only her voice—lucid, plaintive, singing of love and sadness in the same key—which I listened to nightly during a particularly dark winter circa 1996 in a flat on Zubovsky Ploshad.

Bayanova’s repertoire—Gypsy traditionals, Russian romances, and the odd French cabaret favorite—is the soundtrack of Russia’s artistic diaspora, but I didn’t know that when I fell under its spell. I thought the secrets and subplots in the refrains of homesickness applied to me.

Bayanova—child of song and applause and orphan of the Berlin Wall—was obliged to promote as an honorary extraterrestrial, an eternal alien on the Arbat. Then one day in March I read in the paper that Alla Bayanova would be giving a performance at 5:30 on Wednesday at the Palace of Metro-Builders (Metro stop: Kaluzhskaya). I shut the door on my apartment acoustics and found myself in a small auditorium among pensioners in their finery squabbling over seats and rummaging through their handbags for reading glasses.

I tried to remember the lamplit music and the voice that I had assumed belonged to a radiant smile and a soul at peace, but with each moment I felt these impressions give way to a body, a biography, a retinue. The woman who stepped onto the stage that evening in an embroidered, full-length gown and tiara was nearly eighty years old, though she looked at least two decades younger. Her smile, I could see, was painful—not radiant, and her soul, I couldn’t see, but guessed, had wandered far from peace.

With a single kiss thrown double-handed at the octogenarian audience, I saw the small hall transformed in her eyes into Covent Garden. Viva Metrostroi, exclaimed Bayanova, and I released all my mental images like marbles across the parquet floor.


* * *

Over the next year I visited Bayanova three or four times at her apartment off the Arbat, where the sitting room was dominated by a tapestry showing the diva lounging on a tiger-skin throw, and the kitchen felt like any other.

Our acquaintance began in impatience—with Bayanova shooing her entourage (a dressmaker, an accompanist, a doting gentleman with an audacious hairpiece, and someone’s niece from Kiev) from the room so that she might talk to this “A-mer-ee-kan zhud-na-leest with the adorable accent.”

It ended, also, in impatience, with the singer tossing a slight book into my lap—her memoirs. “It’s all in here,” she said. “I am so tired of the memories. The nost-al-gia.”

I remember how she labored over each syllable to imply the physical fatigue her extraordinary life keeps causing her. I remember how she removed her oversize glasses, revealing eyes so displeased they left no room for sadness. Bayanova looked upon me that evening, (and forever in my mind), with Bette Davis eyes. They seemed to accuse the world before them of false hope, one that she, Bayanova—child of song and applause and orphan of the Berlin Wall—was obliged to promote as an honorary extraterrestrial, an eternal alien on the Arbat.

Even now, when I press play and hear the verse, “Ya idu ne po nashe zemlye,” I struggle momentarily to translate its meaning: I am walking, not on our earth? I am walking on earth not ours? I am walking on foreign land? I walk in a stranger’s country? And then, just as clearly I hear Davis survey this landscape and proclaim What—a—dump.


* * *

Bayanova was born in Bessarabia, the only child of a handsome baritone and the ballerina he loved. Her mother’s father opposed their marriage, so they eloped to a village church on a borrowed sleigh and were married before a pair of witnesses dragged from the dressing rooms of the Odessa opera.

Like all good Russians in the vulnerable empire, the Bayanovs left their home just ahead of the Revolution. Like all true artistes, they wound up in Paris. Alla was just nine years old when her Papa took her to work one night at the famous Kazbek nightclub.

“Vertinsky was there that night,” she told me and I murmured appreciatively. Alexander Vertinsky personified the era in his top hat and tails and his lips curled seductively around the lyrics of exile and an ebony cigarette holder.

“Why does it strike you as strange that I feel devotion for a home I never knew?” “When he met me, he called me the ‘Slavic maiden with Persian eyes,’” she continued. “I’ve heard many compliments in my day, but none so original as this from Vertinsky. And then, we danced a tango as the maitre d’—a man who once counted himself among the inner circle of guardians of the sickly Tsarevitch—looked on.”

Bayanova had stories about Shaliapin, about Prince Obalensky, about famous Gypsy orchestras and the nightclubs of Monte Carlo. Later, her life was the tale of warfare, flight, repression, and odds. Loves lost, estates surrendered, Bayanova found herself the Scarlet O’Hara of Bucharest. She sang more than once for Ceausescu.

Eventually Glasnost and Gorbachev secured her the Arbat apartment, as well as concerts at Metrostroi, in Leningrad, in Yekaterinburg. Bayanova was in her homeland for the first time in her life, a senior citizen of the nearly dead Soviet Union.

I have since written down all her stories. But not then. Then I drank tea and responded to her words with the banal enthusiasm of a young A-mer-ee-kan zhud-na-leest. “Have you never heard a tragic tale before?” she would ask me. Or, “Why does it strike you as strange that I feel devotion for a home I never knew?”

Then it would be time for one of Bayanova’s television serials and she would dismiss me.


* * *

Bayanova was lying on her bed that night I showed up after a long absence and two tours around the Arbat side streets. Above her hung a grimacing portrait of her father in the role of Boris Gudonov. I asked if she had a picture of her mother.

“I’ve never seen a photograph of my mother, unbelievable as that may seem,” she said, her voice still young but brittle. “My parents were neither sentimental nor vain—they didn’t save press clippings. Even when spent all our time among friends who loved to snap group photos—somehow these pictures never managed to stay in our possession.”

I said something about memories and the photographs of the mind, but Bayanova seemed unimpressed.

“Do you know, I once agreed to give voice lessons to a young lady who came to me saying she was the great-granddaughter of one of our close friends, with whom we lost touch after the war. For three weeks I listened to her,” she said, “unable to find an ounce of real talent, but hoping that she would, one day, bring me some of the family photos she said she had collected from Bucharest not long ago—dozens of albums, she said. I thought perhaps I would find some pictures there of my family—pictures we never took ourselves.”

Then Bayanova let out a piercing shriek for Natasha, who hustled quickly into the bedroom, bearing my things. “What time is it,” asked Bayanova, her voice again quiet with restrained dignity. The radio in the corner chimed Moscovskaya Vremya 8 o’clock as I said goodbye.

Out on the street I was thinking of the Bayanov family photographs—pictures that are, by definition, afterthoughts. I imagined snapshots of holiday tables, weekend picnics, vacations on the Black Sea in which a dozen bathers sprawl or strike poses and Alla appears in regal profile behind her father’s sunburnt shoulders while her mother emerges from the surf in the far right corner, a tight black suit, her hands arrested at the moment before she peels a bathing cap from her head. They are somewhere, under smudged glass on a mantelpiece, lying facedown in a shoebox, sliding unmoored across the faded black paper of a century-old album.

Could they be hunted down? Could one possibly collect the incidental Bayanovs? the inadvertent Bayanovs? The forgotten Bayanovs?

I began to see the project like a photographic biographical sketch: from the grainy image of the entire ensemble of Die Fledermaus cabaret in 1938 reprinted in a student dissertation to the digital snapshot taken by a German tourist yesterday afternoon next to an Arbat matryoshka vendor at the precise hour when Alla Bayanova crossed the cobblestones on her way home from walking her dog along Sitsev Vrazhek Lane.


TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem