Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Archives, Vanished Voices Speak Their Stories

When in 1908 Leo Tolstoy began his scathing anti-governmental tract, "I Can't Be Silent," he was roaring with contempt and impatience -- something captured by a primitive recording device left running by his secretary. On discovering the accidental recording, the writer took up his pen and silently continued his censure.


But the opening lines of his belligerent work, still preserved in a little-known Moscow audio archive, stand as a powerful reminder of Tolstoy's anger.


"The connection between a creative work and an individual's life is portrayed by the voice," said Lev Shilov, 63, director of the audio recordings division of the State Literature Museum, where the wax cylinders on which Tolstoy's voice was recorded are kept. "If the writers of our day don't leave behind their voice, then they must be sought out."


This is what Shilov has been doing for over 30 years. And the more than 10,000 recorded volumes in the archive are as much his own legacy as that of a century of writers, collectors and literary figures.


Although by no means one of the largest audio archives in the former Soviet Union, Shilov's goes far beyond a mere cataloging of sounds and voices and is a testament to the curator's artistic approach from the 1950s on.


"Lev Shilov was in the middle of the cultural scene at that time," said Anna Kurt, a 34-year-old Moscow poet and translator who attributes her intense love of Russian poetry to the time she spent in the archive. "You wouldn't believe how poor he was. The Literature Museum gave very little support and had a negative attitude to his activities."


Beginning in the 1950s when he worked at the Mayakovsky Museum, Shilov sought out the voices of an era that, while then fresh in the memories of many, would soon leave only printed remains.


Because he concentrated primarily on the survivors and contemporaries of the avant-garde circle which Mayakovsky himself dominated in the early years after the revolution, Shilov said Communist Party officials regarded him with some suspicion.


In 1956, the director of the museum was replaced by the head of a military museum. Shilov took his cue -- along with his cabinet of recordings -- and, using contacts in the literary world, settled into the premises of the Writers' Union to establish the first Office of Sound Recordings.


"It wasn't a museum," said Shilov, who, during a recent interview in the chilly basement archive, frequently lapsed into silent memories, the smile never leaving his face. His fiefdom then constituted only what he called "a club." Many members of the Writers' Union didn't even know of the existence of the library, tucked behind a stairwell.


And so, with a simple transfer in which the gross cost of the tapes was deducted from one institution's balance and debited to another, Shilov's archive moved to its present home in the State Literature Museum.


By the early 1980s, the literary world was exploding with energy and new voices. Shilov had his hands full, but he managed to organize literary evenings despite little institutional support.


"When he recited, it was like a theater of one actor. He showed slides, played music, and recited poetry with such a brilliance and refinement. He had no vulgarity -- only exquisite taste," said Kurt.


A superficial browse through the shelves of Shilov's archive is enough to appreciate the unique method of his collecting. In contrast to the sterile, systematic categorization of most Soviet archives, nearly every tape has a story behind it. One tape is marked, "1965 -- then it was an underground recording." This means, to those in the know, that the tape had been misplaced and found under the floor boards -- not that it was an illicit recording.


"A collection is good not just because of what's in it, but what is not in it," is Shilov's rule No. 1.


Unlike the gargantuan phono-libraries of Melodia and the State Archive of Soundrecordings that hold some 2 million items, Shilov prefers to streamline his productions, often saving just minutes of a long recording session.


When a close lady friend of Alexander Blok insisted on reciting every poem and letter the poet had ever sent her, Shilov the archivist faithfully recorded all three hours. Shilov the artist included only 1 1/2 minutes of the woman's performance in the final compilation -- her recollection of the dress she wore on her first rendezvous with "the last romantic poet." That moment, he explained, added more to the record than all the impassioned readings.


Among all the items in the phono-library, ranging from the rare to the anecdotal to the subversive, Shilov is most proud of the recording of poet Anna Akhmatova reciting her banned masterpiece "Requiem."


The prelude tells of a woman approaching Akhmatova in line before a Leningrad prison, where both women hoped to learn the fate of their imprisoned sons.


"Now she started out of the torpor common to


us all/and asked me in a whisper/(everyone whispered there):/'Can you describe this?' And I said: 'I can.'"


When Shilov taped those lines he captured three voices in one -- the narrator, the supplicant mother, and the poet.





The audio archives of the Division of Sound Recording are located at 14 Vspolny Pereulok. They are open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Tel. 290-3338. Nearest metro: Mayakovskaya.