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Eight hidden suitcases Meet the Soviet physicist who hosted the USSR’s best-known underground parties and recorded the greatest writers of his era

Source: Meduza
Semyon Katz for Meduza

Alexander Krivomazov was a Soviet physicist who spent the 1970s and early 1980s organizing house parties with writers and artists in his small one-bedroom flat in Moscow. The parties grew into an underground literary institution, away from the watchful eye of official Soviet censorship. Over the course of eight years, Krivomazov organized 350 readings and concerts, providing a platform for the most prominent writers and filmmakers of the era. It was at Krivomazov’s house that Soviet writer Venedikt Erofeev presented his infamous prose poem “Moscow-Petushki”; Arkady Strugatsky used his time there to talk about how filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky created the cult 1979 science fiction movie Stalker, based on a novel by the Strugatsky brothers. Krivomazov diligently photographed all the events and kept audio recordings of the readings. He assembled an impressive archive that he hid from KGB agents by storing it in eight large suitcases sealed so carefully that the archivist himself struggled to open them. Meduza’s Kristina Safonova traces Krivomazov’s story.

The underground literary world of the Soviet Union 

Bookshelves lined the entire wall of a narrow room on the ninth floor of a Soviet apartment block. In the dim light of a single desk lamp, you could barely make out a large divan that served as a bed at night, and as a sofa for guests to sit on in the evenings. Up to twenty people could squeeze together on the divan, while others sat perched on rickety benches assembled from wooden boards. The apartment belonged to physicist Alexander Krivomazov. Among the hundreds of people who flocked to his apartment, he went by Sasha.

Sasha hosted readings. In the mid-1960s, the Khruschev thaw, which had broken the oppressive reign of the Stalin period, made way for what is known as the Era of Stagnation under Brezhnev. The conservative government was failing to change with the times, and all literature, art, and theater were censored by the state. Official censors redacted anything that did not fit the party line or even left room for “misinterpretation” by Soviet citizens.

“The [Soviet] literary world of the late 1970s was divided into the official and the non-official. Only members of the Writers’ Union could present their work at the Central House of Writers [or Tsentralny Dom Literatorov, a club for Soviet writers]. Those who weren’t in the Union, or who’d been kicked out, had to find alternative platforms. There were a lot of house parties and clubs back then that used to pretend they were doing something completely different, but were actually creating spaces for readings and exhibitions. But those evenings at Sasha Krivomazov’s house were different. They were a real institution, a sort of non-official Central House of Writers with a whole program and its own schedule,” recalls poet Tatyana Scherbina.

Poet Sergey Shervinsky and his audience in Alexader Krivomazov’s apartment. February 11, 1978.
Photo by Alexander Krivomazov
Writer Vasily Aksyonov. March 29, 1980
Photo by Alexander Krivomazov
Poet Tatyana Scherbina. April 12, 1980
Photo by Alexander Krivomazov

Readings at Sasha’s took place on Fridays and Saturdays at around 6 PM. The host would pin a schedule for the next two or three weeks to the wall inside his flat, and updates would spread by word of mouth. Guests would gather in small groups and take the metro to a district called Orekhovo-Borisovo in southeast Moscow. Then, they’d board a bus and ride for another twenty minutes past identical blocks of flats to Sasha’s cramped one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of the city. With its thin wallpaper and makeshift benches, it became a real center for the arts. Between 1975 and 1983, Sasha hosted over 350 literary evenings.

“We writers would sometimes get together, sit in a circle, take turns reading. But only Sasha would dedicate a whole evening to one single person, enough to really demonstrate what mattered [in their work],” says poet and translator Yulia Pokrovskaya, who frequented the house parties. Poet Anna Gedman agrees: “Evenings at Sasha’s house had a very special reputation. He was a truly harsh judge of literature. Presenting at his place was very prestigious.”

Sasha took the parties very seriously. “It was important for me that the people who would attend these parties got something out of them. Happiness, maybe. Otherwise, there wasn’t much sense in coming out to the middle of nowhere,” he scoffs. He recorded the famous authors and poets who presented at his place and took their photographs using an old Soviet Zenit camera. His archive includes readings by Arkady Shteinberg, Mark Rozovsky, Vladimir Aleinikov, Garri Gordon, Genrikh Sapgir, Dmitrii Prigov, Vasily Aksyonov, and many others.

But these were not carefree times. Trust was hard to come by, and Sasha was always aware of the risks he was taking: “It was a time when the word ‘KGB’ was used to replace swear words in every other sentence. People really did not trust each other, preferred to keep to themselves,” he says. “The evenings [at my house] were designed for people who felt more free, more open. People who had a bit more trust in those around them. And I was afraid that the KGB could frame us at any moment. This burden weighed on me every day.”

At the entrance to Sasha’s apartment, everyone would pay one ruble, which went towards food and a cab ride for the person presenting that evening. “That wasn’t very much money, but it wasn’t very little money either. A ticket to the theater, for example, cost between one and five rubles back then,” recalls Lidia Ioffe, a software engineer who frequented the events. “They served tea, it was always very good tea. Indian or Ceylon tea, which was hard to get back then. And white bread with butter, and cold cuts. I still remember how tasty everything was!”

Alcohol was rarely served. One exception was the night that Soviet writer Venedikt Erofeev performed. His infamous prose poem Moscow-Petushki (also published in English under the titles Moscow to the End of the Line, Moscow Stations, and Moscow Circles) was written in 1969-1970. The piece was published in Israel in 1973 and in Paris in 1977. In the Soviet Union, it was circulated by underground networks of dissidents from reader to reader. It became officially available to a broad Soviet readership only in 1989, when an edited version was published in a literary almanac. The semi-autobiographical story traces the suburban commuter train travels of an alcoholic intellectual named Venichka.

On the night of his reading, Erofeev made sure each guest was served two bottles of wine each, and instructed them to down a glass of wine after every refrain. Some people abstained from drinking, so after he finished the five bottles of wine he had allocated to himself, Erofeev drank what the guests had left. That evening, Sasha made the only known recording of Erofeev reading his work.

Venedikt Erofeev reading “Moscow-Petushki” at a literary evening at Alexader Krivomazov’s house. March 9, 1980
Photos by Alexander Krivomazov

Eight years later, in the mid-1980s, Krivomazov sold the recording to Erofeev’s wife for 100 rubles. She had asked for it because her husband had fallen ill with throat cancer and it was increasingly difficult for him to perform. They had planned to use the recording during his readings. Krivomazov earned a reputation for trying to profit off of Erofeev’s fame during this difficult time.

Sasha’s story

Sasha was raised by a single mother. They lived in Almaty in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic until he was six. Then, they moved to Rostov-on-Don before ultimately relocating to Uryupinsk, where Sasha’s mother became the head of the local postal service. Every day, she would lug magazines from work back to their house to give to her son to read. It was in one of these magazines that Sasha first read Vasily Aksyonov’s stories “Star Ticket” and “Oranges from Morocco,” and everything changed.

In 1964, Sasha was accepted to study at the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute. He watched his professors with curiosity and dismay, and decided that he would put all his energy into escaping what he saw as the bleak realities of everyday Soviet life. He immersed himself in the poetry of Andrey Bely, Anna Akhmatova, and Alexander Pushkin alongside articles by Viktor Zhirmunskii and Boris Eikhenbaum. He’d read through the night. In the morning, he would rush off to the Historical Library to pick up dozens and dozens of new books. He leafed through over one hundred books a day: Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Tarkovsky, and the ancient Greeks: Eschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Homer, Pindar, Archilochus of Paros.

By the time he was a senior in college, Sasha had gotten married and was living with his wife and their newborn daughter in his in-laws’ small apartment. His wife was an elementary school teacher. Krivomazov said his in-laws did not approve of the fact that he was still studying instead of working. The marriage came to an end after two years.

Sasha followed the academic track and became a researcher. He moved into a one-bedroom apartment off the busy Kashirskoe highway that was purchased by his mother. He began tutoring a young woman in math and physics, and the two became close and began a relationship. Eventually, their conversations about math gave way to discussions about literature and art, and the woman mentioned that another lover of hers was acquainted with Evgenii Bachurin, Sasha’s favorite singer-songwriter. She introduced them, and on a warm evening in May 1975, Bachurin performed for a small audience in Sasha’s flat. This would be the first of hundreds of events hosted in that very room.

Viktor Erofeev at Krivomazov’s house. January 19, 1980
Photo by Alexander Krivomazov
Arkady Shteinberg and his audience. Alexander Krivomazov is in the first row on the far right. January 27, 1981
Photo by Alexander Krivomazov
Alexander Krivomazov pictured in the first row on the left. Circa July 25, 1981
Photograph from Alexander Krivomazov’s archive

Sasha reached out to poets and writers through people he knew. He would select only those who were willing to accept a small payment or no payment at all, since neither Sasha nor his guests could afford expensive “tickets.” Many were happy to present in return for a cab ride or a drink. Science fiction writer Arkady Strugatsky, for example, told Sasha he would present his work for a bottle of cognac. Sasha bent over backwards, reaching out to relatives back in Almaty to procure cognac and to lure in Strugatsky. But Strugatsky never drank it and forgot to take the bottle with him when he left at the end of the night. Later, the relative from Almaty drank the cognac herself when she came to visit Sasha in Moscow.

At the end of the evening, Sasha would present each performer with a thank-you card. In addition to taking photographs and recording the readings, Krivomazov had each reader write a few lines about the evening in a big photo album. He would add their photos to their notes later on. The archive kept expanding.

The search

“He took photos of everyone: the presenter and the audience. He’d never hand the photos over to anyone. At least not to the ordinary guests,” says Lidia Ioffe. “One time, I convinced my friends to come along to one of the parties. They took one look at what was happening and were completely mortified. They said to me, ‘are you crazy? This is a KGB apartment! This is a typical trap!’ And they covered their faces so they wouldn’t be in the pictures,” she recounts. Ioffe thinks that the parties may have been held under the watchful eye of the “relevant authorities” but adds that she does not know of anyone who ever got in trouble as a result of them.

Anton Berezin, an author of children’s books, says that rumors that Sasha was working with the secret services began to spread because people noticed that he was never “taken in,” even though many people were aware of the underground literary culture he was supporting. Writer Evgeny Kozlovsky was convinced that Sasha was the cause of his troubles with the law: “My entire imprisonment in Lefortovo was a result of all this… Of course, the parties were great: We’d get together, we’d do the readings. But then there were the rats. Krivomazov himself testified against me, and some other people, too. When you’re a hero of that sort, when you’re responsible for gathering everyone together like that, you really shouldn’t be cooperating [with the KGB]. But he cooperated, and in such a horrid way. And it’s unclear whether he did or didn’t have a choice.”

On the evening of December 6, 1982, Sasha came home to find a police car parked next to the entrance to his building. He didn’t think twice about it, went inside, and quickly fell asleep. But at 2 o’clock in the morning, he was woken up by someone ringing his doorbell. He didn’t get up to open the door: “I thought some alcoholics were ringing doorbells looking for booze, or someone had come to visit from out of town without warning, and I don’t like that stuff,” he recalls. The doorbell continued to ring, and Krivomazov continued to ignore it. He kept thinking of the grumpy neighbors who disapproved of his house parties and who’d made calls to the police. His mind raced to his troubles at work, at the Institute for the History of Natural Science and Technology: “Everyone gets bonuses, but I never do.” He thought about the building manager who didn’t like Sasha’s guests because they smoked in the stairwell. Finally, at 8:00 AM, he heard the building manager’s voice outside his front door. “Anyone know where Krivomazov is? We have a quick question to ask him. Are his lights working, is the gas on? We have to check it out,” and Krivomazov, after a night of fear and paranoia, finally opened the door. Eight policemen entered his flat, followed by two or three official search witnesses, and the search began.

They never found the photo albums or audio recordings. A year before that, writer Evgeny Popov had suggested that Sasha find alternative storage for his archive: “Together with Dmitrii Prigov and some other people, we created an almanac called Catalog [a non-official periodical], and the KGB got interested. They searched [my house],” says Popov. “I knew that since we’d attracted their attention, they would surely search Krivomazov’s place too.” Sasha had heeded the advice. He packed all his material into eight large suitcases, sealed them carefully with a sticky mixture of glue and paper mache, and distributed them among “people who could be trusted.” He spent the next several years shuttling the suitcases between different hiding places, checking that the contents were intact when he could.

Krivomazov was called upon several times to testify in the Kozlovskii case. He says he never said anything bad about the arrested writer. After the search, Sasha got most of his books back, but not all, and he went to see the investigating officer to ask about one book that was missing. During their meeting, Sasha remembers the door opening and then closing behind him in the middle of the conversation: “No one entered. I could be wrong, but back then I was convinced that they had opened the door and Kozlovskii was there, and they wanted to show him I was there, allegedly tattling on him to the KGB.”

After these events, Sasha hosted only a couple more parties. Then, he stopped inviting his friends over altogether. “You do something good, something people need, and then they make these faces at you – they claim you cooperated [with the KGB]. This KGB had nothing to do with me. And the parties stopped because of Masha anyway,” says Krivomazov.

Masha is the anonymized name of a poet and translator who met Krivomazov shortly before the search at one of his parties. They started spending more and more time together. “In order to see Masha, to take her out, I needed time at my disposal. The parties had been ruined by the KGB. I felt like something had cracked in my soul, the rock that had held it all together. I had suddenly realized that I was surrounded by all these new things that I knew nothing about: Polish cinema, British and German films… We’d sit next to each other [at the movies], my hand on her knee. I couldn’t have done that at my parties,” says Sasha. He adds that his financial situation was also tough at the time, and this was another hurdle for continuing the parties. The last one took place in February 1983.

Fraud

Krivomazov spent years searching for new temporary hiding places for his suitcases and changing their location. Finally, in the early 1990s, he collected his entire archive and brought it back to his own flat. At the time, he and a business partner had launched a new publishing house specializing in corporate and business magazines, and by 1996, he had made enough money to buy a new apartment in the center of Moscow. His infamous one-bedroom flat on Kashirskoe became a sort of storage place for his things, including most of the suitcases of archival material. He had moved only two of the suitcases to his new home, while the other six remained in his old one-bedroom.

Semyon Katz for Meduza
Semyon Katz for Meduza
Semyon Katz for Meduza

Sasha retired in 2007. Five years later, in 2012, he met a woman named Nadezhda Perminova online. She worked as a senior doctor at the Sklifosovsky Clinical Research Institute in Moscow. One year after they started seeing each other, he landed in the hospital, and Perminova claimed he had cancer. The diagnosis was never confirmed, and Sasha began to suspect that she had poisoned him in order to lock him up in a hospital ward. When he was released from the hospital, he came home to find that expensive items, money, and personal documents had gone missing from his new flat. The next day, Perminova drove him to a notary office and pressured him to sign papers that would allow Perminova to sell off his one-bedroom flat on Kashirskoe highway. “And she made use of this opportunity right then and there – she got additional fake documents, used those to sell off the flat, didn’t give me any of the money.” Sasha went to visit the old flat two months later, and it was empty. The six suitcases were nowhere to be found.

In November 2017, Perminova was convicted for fraud and sentenced to five years in prison. Krivomazov legally got his old flat back in 2019.

Sasha was left with two suitcases of the original eight. He managed to get one of them open, but the other suitcase remained hopelessly sealed. But one day, a Facebook comment led to a new chapter in the twisting, turning story of the suitcases.

Evgeny Rein’s night. April 12, 1980.
Photo by Alexander Krivomazov 
Arseny Tarkovsky. Circa February 1982.
Photo by Alexander Krivomazov

A man named Ilya Simanovsky had posted a photo in a Facebook group dedicated to Arseny Tarkovsky and Andrei Tarkovsky. The photo was taken on the set of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which was based on a book written by the Strugatsky brothers. In a comment on the post, Sasha volunteered that Arkady Strugatsky, one of the brothers, had told audiences about the filming process during his presentation at one of the house parties he hosted. He told Simanovsky that he had the audio recording at home but could not access it because the suitcase was sealed shut. Simanovsky showed up at Sasha’s door and broke open the suitcase, finding treasures from the 1970s and 1980s that no one had seen in years.

Semyon Katz for Meduza
Semyon Katz for Meduza
Semyon Katz for Meduza

Simanovsky was an enthusiast who collected old audio recordings of poets and writers, and he was thrilled to hear Arkady Strugatsky’s voice. He decided to digitize Sasha’s archive and brought all the necessary equipment to his flat to begin working on the project. Sasha now shares the photos online on a website that narrates the history of his parties. So far, Krivamozov and Simanovsky have uploaded photos from five of the albums they found in the last suitcase. The story of the photos and recordings has begun to circulate in Russian media, and literary scholars have already used his archive to find visuals for their books.

Krivomazov says he is happy without the house parties because their absence gives him time to focus on what’s important to him now. He spends his days sharing the archive he’s curated and creating websites that tell the stories of great Soviet poets.

Semyon Katz for Meduza

Text by Kristina Safonova

Editing by Tatiana Ershova

Abridged English version by Olga Zeveleva