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DESIGNER FROM AN ARTISTIC DYNASTY

On April 15, 1933, Boris Messerer, a talented theatrical designer, artist, scene-painter, book designer and a man of many awards, was born. Messerer comes from a distinguished dynasty of artists. His father, Asaf Messerer, was a ballet dancer; his mother, Anel Sudakevich, was an actress in silent films and a costume designer; his cousin, Maya Plisetskaya, is one of the world's greatest ballerinas; his wife, Bella Akhmadulina, is one of Russia's most revered poets. Messerer himself belongs to the generation of Russian intellectuals known as the "shestidesyatniki" ("people of the sixties"), who flowered in the post-Stalin Thaw, then resisted the Brezhnev era revanche.

Contrary to family traditions, Messerer studied at the Moscow Architectural Institute. But rather than design buildings, he applied his training to architecture of the stage. Shortly after his graduation, he joined the new Sovremennik (Contemporary) Theater, where he debuted with a stage set for The Third Wish by V. Blazhek.

In 1963, Messerer designed his first set for the Bolshoi Theatre, in The Second Lieutenant Kizhe (music by Sergei Prokofiev, see page 47), demonstrating his singular approach: rather than simply make the set the place of action, Messerer created graphic compositions that express the performance's main ideas and become visual "characteristics" of the play. In "Carmen-Suite," for example, he created the image of a circus ring with a huge mask of a black bull. Actors sit in black Spanish chairs -- painted as graphic silhouettes -- and are at once bullfight spectators and judges of the main character. All the set's elements have the double meaning that entwines the bullring and the ring of life.

Messerer also designed memorable sets for many other Bolshoi operas, including The Queen of Spades (1964), Lefty (1976) and Boris Godunov (1994). In 2001, he organized the exhibition, "Artists of the Bolshoi Theatre," devoted to over 200 years of set design at the Bolshoi.

Today, Messerer's studio is not simply his place of work and "Povarskaya Street, 20" is not just his Moscow address, but also a free, unofficial academy of fine arts and union of literature and music, where Russia's creative intelligentsia continues to meet. Indeed, in the Soviet era, Messerer's studio was a home for the dissident literary journal Metropol, where the works of such well-known Russian authors as Bitov, Vysotsky, Yevtushenko, Yerofeev, Akhmadulina, Aksyonov and others were collected.

On March 5, fifty years ago, one of the most awful tyrants of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin (1879-1953), died.

On March 1, 1953, Stalin was at his dacha in Kuntsevo, Moscow, when he had a massive stroke. He spent several hours lying half-paralyzed on the floor, because his servants were forbidden from entering his quarters unbidden. He was found lying on the dining room floor with a bottle of mineral water and a copy of Pravda next to him.

The doctors who had treated Stalin for many years had recently been arrested in the "Doctor's Plot," so there was some delay in assembling a conference of medical experts. Still, through a succession of confusing bulletins, people came to understand that their leader was gravely ill and would soon die. (Indeed, some historians argue that Beria and the Politburo accelerated Stalin's death by holding off medical treatment until it was too late to do any good.)

The wait was not long. On March 5, everything was over. Stalin's body was taken to the Kremlin mortuary in a white automobile and, after the autopsy, was transferred to the embalmers, who prepared it for three days of lying-in-state.

Stalin was dead, but he was not yet finished with Russia. On the day of his funeral, at noon, guns were fired, whistles and sirens blown, and bells tolled in mourning across the Soviet Union. And, in the surging crush of humanity lined up through central Moscow to file past Stalin's bier, hundreds, if not thousands, died (see box, right). …

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