Teleshov’s Sreda: the story of a merchant inspiriting Moscow intellectuals

Teleshov’s Sreda: the story of a merchant inspiriting Moscow intellectuals
Photo: The Museum of Moscow
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Nikolai Dmitrieyvich Teleshov (1867-1957). A poet, writer, and art patron, Teleshov has left an indelible mark on Moscow’s culture by founding the famous literary salon, Sreda, and later the Moscow Art Theatre Museum.

From merchants to writers

A merchant’s son, Nikolai Teleshov graduated from the Practical Academy of Commercial Science and became a co-owner of the company founded by his father before joining the Yaroslavl Manufactory board. He was more passionate about literature than commerce, publishing his first poems in 1884 before focusing on short stories.  Teleshov wrote mainly about the everyday life of merchants, commoners, workers and peasants, and was said to have been strongly influenced by Tolstoy, Korolenko and Chekhov, the latter of which he knew personally. It was on Chekhov’s advice that he travelled all over the Urals and Siberia. The travels produced such collected stories as “By a Troika Carriage” and “Beyond the Urals”.

Teleshov made friends easily among authors and publishers and was a frequent guest at their gatherings and clubs. He possessed good organisational skills and founded his own salon in 1899, which for 20 years remained one of the better known literary gatherings in Moscow. Members would at first meet on Wednesdays, a habit that gave the club its name, Sreda. Teleshov’s house welcomed all but bores who were totally alien to art.

Nikolai Teleshov, a Russian and Soviet writer, poet, honorary citizen, meritorious art worker of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. By I.Yefimov and  Ye.Michurina. Moscow. 13 January 1957

Literature and other things

Sreda’s major members were such well-known poets and writers as Maxim Gorky, Alexander Kuprin, Nikolai Garin-Mikhailovsky, Vladimir Korolenko, Ivan Bunin, Dmitry Mamin-Sibiryak, Alexander Serafimovich, Leonid Andreev, Vikenty Veresaev, Vladimir Gilyarovsky, Konstantin Balmont, and Valery Bryusov. They would read their works aloud at the gatherings where everyone was free to voice an opinion. Despite differing tastes in literature and political views, members were not prone to ad hominem attacks but keen on helping each other to cut superfluities and boost expressiveness. It was for this reason that Leonid Andreyev continued to send his works to Teleshov after moving abroad to receive feedback from fellow Sreda members.

The group numbers grew fast, and newcomers were not always literati. Teleshov later wrote about the day Gorky read “The Lower Depths” in 1902: “In addition to our members, there were many invited actors and literati. The ones I can now recall: Vasily Kachalov, Olga Knipper-Chekhova, authors Krandiyevskaya, Verbitskaya, Shchepkina-Kupernik. Also present were important journalists, physicians, lawyers, researchers, and artists. It was crowded with people sitting on windowsills or standing in the rooms where they could hear everything and see nothing. It was a resounding success.” 

Singer Fyodor Chaliapin and pianist Sergei Rakhmaninov were frequent guests. The former would sing to the latter’s piano accompaniment. “Chaliapin ignited Rakhmaninov, and Rakhmaninov provoked Chaliapin and the two giants would carry one another away to literally produce wonders. It was no longer singing and music as they are commonly known, it was two musical greats in a feat of inspiration,” Teleshov wrote. Chaliapin half-joked: “You should better listen to me sing here, rather than on stage.”

Isaak Levitan, Apollinary Vasnetsov and other artists learned about Sreda from Teleshov’s wife. Yelena Teleshova came from a prominent dynasty of merchants and art patrons, the Karzinkins. She graduated from the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (present-day Russian Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture), where she studied under famous painter Vasily Polenov. The marriage was a true creative union: Yelena would draw illustrations for Teleshov’s works, while he dedicated to her his magnum opus, A Writer’s Notes.

Sreda addresses, real and fictitious

As it was Teleshov who founded Sreda, the gatherings usually took place at his apartments: Chistoprudny Boulevard (21, before 1904; 23, 1909-1913), 51 Zemlyanoi Val (1904-1909), 18/15 Pokrovsky Boulevard (after 1913).  Sometimes authors and their friends would gather at one of their fellow member’s. For instance, the reading of “The Lower Depths” mentioned above took place at Leonid Andreyev’s apartment. Sreda members were occasional guests at friendly gatherings such as the one held by a literary and art group in Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street.

18 Pokrovsky Boulevard, where the author used to live. By I.Yakushev and N.Yakusheva. Moscow. 1963

There was another reason for the inextricable link of Moscow and Sreda. Permanent members were nicknamed after streets, squares, lanes, and buildings that were similar to their character or appearance. For the abundance of poverty-struck characters in his books, Gorky was called Khitrovka, a square notorious for its doss-houses and dens. Ivan Bunin was known as Zhivodyorka for being thin and sharp-witted. Alexander Kuprin was called Konnaya (Equestrian) Square for his love of horses and circus, Vikenty Veresayev was Kamenny Most (Stone Bridge) for being staunch about his views. Alexander Serafimovich was bald, which earned him the nickname “Kudrino”, literally “Curly-Haired”.  The names were meant to be a joke, and were only used if there were no objections. Leonid Andreyev, for example, did not like “Novoproyektirovanny Pereulok”, which was changed to “Vagankovskoye Cemetery”: “Haven't I written enough about dead people for you?” he asked.

Sreda members loved a joke, but they were no strangers to serious public duties. In 1904, they founded a commission to honour Anton Chekhov’s memory, which paid grants and issued loans to artistic professionals in need. An interest-free loan was all what saved the Moscow Art Theatre from closing down. In 15 years, the commission issued 250,000 roubles worth of loans, a real fortune at the time.

House rich in history

The house in Pokrovsky Boulevard that Teleshov made his home in 1913 and where he lived until his death was also the last abode of Sreda. Even though a memorial plague honouring Teleshov can still be found on the wall of the building, the house had become famous long before the writer came to live here.


Memorial plaque on the house where the writer used to live. By S.Pominov. Moscow. 23 July 1998

Before the fire of 1812, the site was occupied by the stone mansion that belonged to Count Fyodor Tolstoy, who was a member of the Society of Russian Letters Enthusiasts, a prominent book lover and collector of Old Russian manuscripts and early printed books.

Merchant Andrei Karzinkin built a new mansion on the foundations of the older, burnt-down building between 1815-1818. In the second half of the 19th century, the mansion housed literary and musical gatherings with guests such as authors Alexander Ostrovsky and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and actor Mikhail Shchepkin. Young merchant Konstantin Alekseyev made his acting debut there in 1884. It was at this house that the future theatre great Konstantin Stanislavsky played Podkolesin in a chamber performance of Gogol’s “Marriage”. The young actor literally fell through the cracks: he was climbing over a piano and broke the lid before breaking several strings as well. Stanislavsky would remember his entire life, the start of his acting career.

In late 19th century the house was inherited by the Karzinkins siblings: Yelena Karzinkina got the ground floor, with her brother, art patron and member of the Tretyakov Gallery board of trustees Alexander Karzinkin inherited the first. In 1918, the building was nationalised and made to house more people after the former owners were left only two rooms, one for each family. It is little surprise that the gatherings ceased in 1919. Teleshov would continue to hold private meetings but boisterous parties had to be consigned to the past.

An energetic person, Teleshov could not sit idle. He went on to receive a job at the People’s Commissariat for Education, and took part in the founding of the Moscow Art Theatre Museum at 3A Kamergersky Pereulok in 1923. He remained the museum director for nearly 30 years. Teleshov wrote his memoirs from 1925 and published them in newspapers and magazines. They were published in a single volume as “A Writer’s Notes” in 1943. The book would be republished many times. Teleshov’s memoirs shed light on everyday life and more in the late 19th- early 20th century Moscow, as well as on the intelligentsia of the period.   The book ranks equal to the famous masterpiece “Moscow and Muscovites” by Vladimir Gilyarovsky, of which several chapters are said to have been written at the Karzinkin-Teleshov mansion.

Teleshov’s descendants continue to live in Pokrovsky Boulevard as well, supporting Nikolai Teleshov’s Museum Apartment on their own. Visitors are allowed on bank holidays and days of cultural heritage. There are exceptions, though: in November 2015, the museum was one of the venues of the Biennale of Poets.