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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Maritime Meeting With Shalyapin's Suitcase

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It was a once in a lifetime encounter that took place in the late 1970s. As soon as our ship the Baltica set sail from Le Havre to our home port of St. Petersburg -- then Leningrad -- an elderly woman passenger approached me.

"Young man," said the gray-haired lady with an old-fashioned Russian accent characteristic of pre-revolutionary intelligentsia. "Would you be so kind as to find some string and tie up this suitcase? I forgot to tell the porter here that the handle was torn off at St. Lazare Station in Paris and he nearly dropped the bag into the water! What a disaster it would be if all Shalyapin's things had sunk to the bottom of the sea."

As I looked anxiously at the large dark brown leather trunk, I wondered what kind of treasures it contained. I had visited the memorial museum of the great Russian opera singer Fyodor Shalyapin (in what had been his Leningrad apartment) a few years before. The singer had lived there with his second wife, Maria Petsold, from 1914 to 1921. He had also had a separate residence in Moscow.

After Shalyapin left Russia in 1922, the Leningrad apartment was divided into communal flats. However, the tenants appreciated that they were living in the great singer's former home and preserved his samovar, table, writing desk and other furniture. Even through the unspeakable hardship of the 900 days and nights of the Leningrad Siege during World War II, the residents refused to burn his chairs, albums and other belongings.

During the restoration of the museum, workers tore through several layers of wallpaper to establish which had existed during his time there. A paper mill was then ordered to reproduce the leaf-patterned, gray-blue paper. One of the largest rooms of the residence is the dining room. Visitors can see the famous "expanding" table that seats up to 40 people. Daggers and sabers (intended for use as stage props) presented to Shalyapin by his friend, the writer Maxim Gorky are scattered around the room.

In the sitting room, are his writing desk and sketchbook. On the wall is a portrait of Shalyapin, standing on a snow-covered hill in a fur coat and cap. And Shalyapin's great voice, singing from records played on an antique gramophone, gloriously trails visitors from room to room.

I recalled that a guide had mentioned what a pity it was that the museum was not in possession of Shalyapin's belongings from his time living abroad. Such thoughts flashed through my mind when I heard the lady passenger's request. As I brought the string and began mending the suitcase, the woman who introduced herself as Anna Kashina-Yevreinova started anxiously rummaging through her bag.

"Ooh la la! I just cannot seem to find the list of Shalyapin's clothes. I must have left it at home. Would you mind doing me a favor and typing up the list?" There was nothing I minded less. I brought my portable typewriter over to her cabin and the work began.

Picking items one by one, Anna dictated: "One: a leather suitcase. Two: a silk top hat. Three: a camera in a leather case with inscriptions in both French and Russian: 'Fyodor Shalyapin. Stockholm, 1922.' Four: two night shirts, presented to him in Prague. Fyodor died wearing one of them.

"Five: white summer trousers. You can imagine what a tall man Shalyapin was," she added, unfolding the trousers for me to see. "Six: four waist coats -- one black, one brown, two white. Seven: a skull cap. He used to wear it for performances of Prince Igor. Eight: two motley ties. Et voila!" she exclaimed joyfully as we finished the work.

But the episode on the Baltica was just one of the latest of Anna's colorful escapades in connection with Shalyapin's clothes. Her quest dated from the moment she heard from Russian friends that a memorial museum to Shalyapin was being planned.

Anna, a member of Sergei Diaghilev's ballet corps and an actress at the Alexandriisky Drama Theater in St. Petersburg before she emigrated first to Riga and then to Paris in 1925, was a long-time admirer of Shalyapin, and remained on friendly terms with him in Paris. Even after Shalyapin's death in 1938, Anna kept in contact with one of his stepdaughters, Stella de l'Amour.

Stella lived on Avenue d'Eylau in her stepfather's apartment on the first floor of a six-story house. She used to travel, living for months in Italy or the United States. So when Anna was able to make contact with Stella again after many years, she insisted on meeting. Taking a taxi to Stella's apartment in Paris, she was greeted at the door and together they went down into the building's cellar.

Everything was a jumble. Stella said that she had put her stepfather's clothes in a suitcase just after his death in 1938 and had not bothered with it since. Of course, she had forgotten where she had left it and Anna was almost in tears after searching the dusty corners of the spacious cellar, turning over cobwebbed furniture and stumbling over old bottles of wine and heaps of coal.

Anna had ordered the taxi driver to wait for her until she returned. Finally, after three hours, their efforts were rewarded when the suitcase, thick with dust, was discovered. Anna hesitated to open the suitcase. Maybe all the things were so moldy that they had just disintegrated?

Stella finally opened it. The thick quality leather had preserved all the things in good condition. Stella said that it was English-made and that her stepfather had bought the suitcase in London. Anna wanted to pay money for the treasure, but Stella refused. She also agreed that Shalyapin's clothes should be given to his memorial museum.

The Baltica docked at the Leningrad port and Anna asked me to take care of her luggage. The boatswain ordered one of the sailors to carry the suitcase carefully, as if it contained glassware. She left me her address in Paris and invited me to visit.

The following year, we called at Le Havre and I had the opportunity to go to Paris. So I called on Anna at 7 rue Boileau. But before doing so, I stopped at the cemetery of Batignolles to place flowers at Shalyapin's grave and thought to myself how great it would be if he could be reburied in Russia, as he had requested in his will.

I shared my thoughts with Anna, but she doubted it could be accomplished. "It would be extremely difficult to do so because all his living relatives have to give their consent. I am not sure they would all agree to that," she said. After some thought she added, "Fyodor and his second wife, Maria Petsold, are buried in the same grave, which complicates things."

Later we drove to where Shalyapin had lived on Avenue d'Eylan. To my surprise and disappointment, there was no memorial plaque to Shalyapin on the building. "Nobody cares about Shalyapin in Paris now, although he brought fame to the Paris Opera House," Anna sighed.

Anna Kashina-Yevreinova died in 1981, but she would have been glad to know that on Oct. 29, 1984, Shalyapin's remains were reburied in Moscow's Novodevichye Cemetery.

Yevgeny Kunitsyn currently teaches English at the New University of Humanities of Natalya Nesterova. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

The Memorial Museum Flat of Fyodor Shalyapin, which displays the suitcase's items, is located at 2B Ulitsa Graftio in St. Petersburg. It is open Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. Telephone (812) 234-3393. Shalyapin's Moscow residence also houses a museum that features his personal belongings, costumes and portraits. Located at 25 Novinsky Bulvar, it is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Telephone 252-2530 or 205-6236.