Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Alexander Vertinsky

Shanghai and the exile route of an White Russian...

Shanghai and its port area in the 1920's and the port of Vladivostok at the time of the White Russian débacle

This blogger of yours was fed in his adolescence by high quality Belgian and French comics (“Bande Déssinée” or BD). It turned into an addiction I cannot kick. A couple of years ago I was staying with a future Secretary of Defence during a stop-over in Paris, flying from Moscow to Lisbon. In the guest room I found myself surrounded by BD “albums” and I spent half the night indulging my habit. The five albums of the “Nuit Blanche” series, about the fate of a White Army cavalry officer after leaving Russia were fascinating. Paris, Odessa, Vladivostok, Shanghai, all the romantic and/or exotic places of White-Russianness were invited to the graphic novel. Only very recently I have managed to acquire, through google-research and Amazon-help, the entire series. “Les spectres du tsar”, “Le rossignol de Koursk”, “Agafia”, “Vladivostok” and “Shangaï”, all by Yann (script), Olivier Neuray (drawings) and Marianne Garnier (colouring).

An added bonus, when I compare notes with my recollection of that half-night in Paris, is that I had totally missed then the appearance of Alexander Vertinsky as a character in the “Vladivostok” album. Now, Vertinsky is a most fascinating Russian artist who has a extremely colourful – and dramatic – biography. He was already an outstanding lyrics-writer and singer at the time of the Revolution (a bit like George Brassens or Tom Waits, if the Right Honourable Reader understands what I mean). He fled the Red swarming, singing first in Vladivostok, later spending many years in Shanghai. He returned in 1943 to Russia where he was able to give public concerts again, although none of his verses or songs were allowed to be published or recorded in the Soviet Union. Cocaine consumption loomed large in his early career and no biography is completed without a mention to his sister’s sad OD-eing on coke in the 20s.

The depiction of Vertinsky singing in a cabaret of Vladivostok, in the days just before Bolchevik take-over..

In Shanghai he met and married a deliciously young Russian émigrée, even less than half his age. In due time she would become the mother of the author of the lyrics of the Russian national anthem (both pre and post 1991 versions!) and the grandmother of Andrei Konchalovski and Nikita Mikhalkov, the two DNA-sharing giants of Soviet/Russian cinema. And, if I may add, the great-grandmother of my dear friend Stepan, a Muscovite entrepreneur who opened a few years ago a very successful Shanghai-themed restaurant. Called, The Right Honourable Reader is absolutely right, “Vertinski” (please go to www.vertinsky.com for further details on this excellent spot ).

The great-grandson of Vertinsky had the excellent idea of selling hip-hop and lounge remixes of Vertinsky’s songs in that venue, one of my most cherished CDs.

The last James Ivory’s film, “The White Countess”,
which takes part precisely in Shanghai at the time of its huge non-volunteer White Russian colony, has also cabaret scenes with, who else?, Vertinsky performing.

I hope I have managed to wet the appetite of the Right Honourable Reader to this amazing Russian personality. Get on with Google-research then. I shouldn’t help that much but try also YouTube, under the tag ‘Vertinsky’.


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