Rashel's Salon - A Place, A Poem, and A Pop Sensation

My grandfather, Onissim Goldovsky, married Rashel Khin, a well-known writer and translator who came from an affluent family.  In 1897, several years prior to their marriage, Rashel purchased a country estate called Katino in the outskirts of Moscow. At the time, she wrote in her diary, “I bought “Katino”. [It is] a beautiful large house, [with] two wings, a magnificent staff of servants, a fruit garden and park, a kitchen garden, a small pond; an excellent, ideal setting.” It had originally been a sanctuary away from her first husband, Solomon Feldshtein, who she despised.  But once married to Onissim, Katino gave her even more pleasure. It was a place where they could entertain and talk comfortably and privately with their friends about the politics of the day as well as more personal issues.

Rashel Khin

Increasingly, Rashel became known as the hostess of a grand salon both at Katino and in Moscow.  Prominent professional people – writers, philosophers, musicians, and actors – all took part. The salon was well known not only because of those who were regular guests there but later because of a celebrated poem written by Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1931) on the 22nd of December 1913 and dedicated to her. The poem, entitled “In my Mind, I Enter Your study,” speaks nostalgically about the salon and the remarkable people who were part of Rashel’s circle. The wistfulness of the poem indicates that by the time it was written, the salon was a thing of the past. Many who had frequented it were either dead or had emigrated. 

The salon was probably at its most vibrant during the decade leading up to the 1905 Revolution in Russia, and perhaps somewhat beyond.  It was a time when liberals were optimistic about the future and when Rashel’s guests dreamed about Western Enlightenment ideas saving Russia.  When the 1905 Revolution did come, they buzzed about the culmination of the triumph of liberalism. But over time, that optimism faded and many liberals in her circle left the country, as their lives were now in danger from political repression.

In addition to the superstars that frequented her salon, the poem also portrays Rashel as a cultured and intellectual woman through mention of the authors – most of them French – whose books lined the walls of her study. Romantic in tone but classical in form, Voloshin’s poem is considered a classic of the pre-Soviet period, and had it alone existed, it would have ensured Rashel’s enduring fame. A translation of the poem follows:

 In memory I enter your salon:

I see those who were once here and those who are gone forever,

But our longing for them has not died;

And my beating heart is their prisoner.


Baudelaire’s face, Flaubert’s Norman whiskers,

The skeptic Franz, the saintly Satyr, Verlaine,

The blacksmith – Balzac, the jewelers – Goncourt…

Their worn faces and thin bodies

Are looking out at us from the walls, and within the covers of their books

Sleep their spirits, their thoughts, their rhythms, their rebellions, their cries…

 

I am true to them.  But more deeply

I cannot forget the echo of their words, which resounded here.

 

Vladimir Solovyov came to see you, Vladimir Solovyov,

And this Biblical prophet rested his head

On these very chairs…

(The Cross itself would have come to you, wrapped in camel hair)

A creator of people, a herald of books and of tastes,

Who brought Flaubert to you, like a kind of Koran.

Urusov came here, lounging on the divan,

As if spreading flames and sparks around him.


How to embolden words that have been silenced?

How to restore to words their movement, their timbre, their nuances?

 

I remember Storozhenko, ill.  Storozhenko.

His gray hair between sagging shoulders.

Everything which has now been forgotten or banned –

The secret flowers of Europe and Moscow.

 

Everybody was as one when they were around you,

Brandes and Ban’, Taneev, Mintslov, Koni…

Open your diary once again … let me have a glimpse.

Your profile is like the face on a coin,

Your hands unconsciously reach for a pen,

An idea is floating towards the dimming horizon…

And in the whisper of turning pages,

In the song of the words, in the curves of speech,

Flicker conversations, events, faces…

Voloshin’s poem was well-known among educated people in the years after it was written, but in 1975 it became a fixture with masses of the Soviet population when it was transformed into a pop song by David Tukhmanov – a young Soviet composer.  Working on an album, “By the Wave of My Memory,” influenced by the Beatle’s “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which had come out in 1967, Tukhmanov wrote music to accompany lyrics by a number of poets, both Russian and non-Russian (including Sappho, Shelley, and Verlaine).  Initially he worked in secret, because he was afraid that the compositions might be considered too radical or too “Western.”  But when the music was finally submitted for approval, it was, inexplicably, permitted by the Soviet censors. Voloshin’s poem about Rashel was the first track on the album and can be found here. It created a sensation.  Imagine the surprise of my Russian relatives who grew up with this music and knew every word by heart when they learned that the “Rashel” of the lyrics had been the wife of Onissim Goldovsky.