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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Portraits Of an Era

Eugene Shwartz (1896-1958) was one of the leading Soviet playwrights of the 1930s and '40s. He also wrote popular allegorical fairytales -- Hans Christian Anderson meets George Orwell -- whose political allusions made them a hit with the parents, too.


Several generations of young Soviets were raised on his dramatic allegories such as "The Naked King" (1931), "The Shadow" (1940) and "The Dragon" (written in 1944, but censored until 1962), which subtly described the "flexible morality" of the period while parodying its doublespeak.


But there was no doublespeak in his candid and sincere memoirs, which were published posthumously in Paris in 1982 and seven years later in his homeland. Publication of his chatty and expressive "Diaries" followed. And now a radical new form of memoir has just been published by Iskusstvo (the ruble equivalent of $4-$5.)


In his 600-page Phonebook ("Telefonnaya Knizhka") Shwartz painted more than 100 masterly miniature portraits of his friends, colleagues and relatives. It reads like a highly subjective and intimate encyclopedia of the cream of Leningrad's artistic community of the Stalinist era.


Shwartz had a remarkable ability to describe in witty, succinct prose the curious, character-revealing habits and peccadilloes of his subjects: writers, actors, directors and bureaucrats.


The artist Natan Altman, for example, loved catching cockroaches. But instead of killing them he would paint them different colors before setting them free again. He would always paint the big ones gold so that "his wife could take pride in the beast."


And, Shwartz recounts, when the film director Grigory Kozintsev was reproached for continuing to pursue young girls although he was over 60 years old, he answered: "Knowing my age may be a problem for her, but it is not a problem for me."