The winding streets of Moscow: Sergei Yesenin sights

October 7, 2020

Many events in Sergei Yesenin’s life were connected to Moscow, including his public performances, love stories, friendships and disappointments. Yesenin was not exactly fond of Moscow when he moved here from his home town of Ryazan in 1912. His goal was to settle in St Petersburg. However, after living in the city on the Neva for three years, he could not wait to get back to the Garden Ring, Moscow’s boulevards and familiar streets, alleys and courtyards. 

Decision to become a poet

24 bldg 2 Bolshoi Strochenovsky Pereulok

Sergei Yesenin came to Moscow from Ryzan in the summer of 1912 after graduating from the Spas-Klepikovskaya Teachers’ College. The young man stayed in a dormitory on Bolshoi Strochenovsky Pereulok with his father, Alexander, who was a senior salesman at a butcher shop that belonged to Merchant Krylov.

Yesenin’s father anticipated a future career for his son in teaching and insisted that Sergei study at the Moscow University of Education. He was strongly against his son’s ‘childish’ interest in poetry. Meanwhile, he got Sergei a job at the same  butcher shop.

Московский государственный музей С.А. Есенина

The young poet showed his true character pretty soon. He could not put up with the rules in the shop and was particularly indignant at the requirement for all the employees to stand up whenever the owner’s wife came in. He quit after a week and told his father he would not study at the university his father wanted him to and that he would instead pursue his own path in life. The two had a terrible fight.

In a letter to his friend Grigory Panfilov in November 1912, Yesenin wrote:

“I am sorry for not responding for such a long time. Now it’s final. I am alone. I will live without anybody’s help from now on. As my uncle told me, after Easter I can go to St Petersburg and stay with him at his estate not far from Finland. I will probably never see anything familiar again. Oh well. I defended my freedom. Now I rarely visit my father’s flat. He told me I have no business being there.”

In 1995, the Sergei Yesenin Museum opened in the building where the poet’s father lived.

Office romance and surveillance

Ivan Sytin Printing Company (71/5 Pyatnitskaya Street, Bldg.1)

Yesenin’s plan to travel to St Petersburg, as he told his friend, took a while to fulfill. In March 1913, Sergei Yesenin got a job with the Ivan Sytin Printing Company, the biggest printing company at the time. He built a pretty good career starting as a delivery man and eventually becoming assistant proofreader. His poetic endeavours were not as successful however. The poems he sent to publishing companies went unnoticed.

Московский государственный музей С.А. Есенина

Yesenin met Anna Izryadova, also an assistant proofreader, at the printing company. The two started dating and eventually moved in together. They rented a room near Serpukhovskaya Zastava. In 1914, they had a son, Yury. Izryadova shared her memories about meeting the young poet for the first time:

“He just moved to the city from a village but did not look like a village lad. He wore a brown suit, a high starched collar and a green tie. His golden locks made him look like a pretty doll and people immediately started calling him a cherub. He was very arrogant, proud and people didn’t like him for it. He felt depressed. He wrote poetry but nobody would understand it, and editors did not want to publish him. His father was angry at him for writing poems instead of having a proper career.”

Московский государственный музей С.А. Есенина

About two weeks after getting a job at the printing company, Yesenin was caught up in a political plot. Passionate about the ideas of the Socialist Democratic Party, he, along with 50 other workers, signed a letter condemning the Luch newspaper for its anti-Leninist position.

For several months, the police looked for every single person that signed the letter. The cover of the case journal said “1913. Surveillance code: Nabor. Target: Sergei Yesenin, 19 y.o.”

Yesenin was under surveillance for a week, with his every move recorded in the journal, including the times he arrived at and left work. Information on his civil partner (code name “Doska”) was also recorded in the journal. Eventually, Yesenin’s flat was searched but no evidence was found and the surveillance ended.


Alfons Shanyavsky Moscow People’s University (6 Miusskaya Square, Bldg.7)

In September 1913, in addition to working at the printing office, Sergei Yesenin began attending classes at the Alfons Shanyavsky Moscow People’s University as a visiting student. He attended lectures by poet Valery Bryusov, literature critics Pavel Sakulin and Yuly Aikhenvald. The young poet continued to write poems that he would recite at student nights. Pavel Sakulin even praised his writing.

Московский государственный музей С.А. Есенина

Sergei Yesenin studied at the university for 18 months. With his friends, future authors Vasily Nasedkin, Nikolai Kolokolov and Dmitry Semyonovsky, Yesenin joined Moscow’s cultural scene, visited art galleries and theatres.

“We were listening to a lecture by Professor Aikhenvald. He was  almost quoting Belinsky’s words about Baratynsky,” recalled Yesenin’s classmate Boris Sorokin. “With his head low, Yesenin was making notes. I was sitting next to him and saw his hand scribbling fast on a piece of paper: ‘Of all the poets who emerged at the same time as Pushkin, Baratynsky was the greatest, no doubt.’ He put down his pencil and kept listening, his lips tight. After the lecture, we went downstairs. Yesenin stopped on the stairs and said: ‘I should read Baratynsky more often.’”

First work published

Dostoyevsky Street (the building is no longer there)

The first creative group in Moscow that Sergei Yesenin joined was the Surikov Literature and Music Club. It happened in 1912.  The club brought together aspiring poets, writers and musicians from the working class. Surikov Club members were also involved in politics and social issues. The young poet started reciting his poems to blue-collar workers. First Yesenin was accepted in the club as a supporter with an advisory vote. One of the places where members of the club had their meetings was the building at 11 Novaya Bozhedomka Street (now Dostoyevskogo Street).

Sergei Yesenin’s first published poem came out in January 1914. It was the famous Birch. The poem was published in a children’s magazine, Mirok, under the pseudonym Ariston. Now that his poetry started to get published, Yesenin became a fully accepted member of the Surikov Club.

Московский государственный музей С.А. Есенина

In early 1915, Yesenin recited his poem Rus at one of the club’s meetings and was accepted to the editorial board of a new magazine, Drug Naroda. He tried different roles, from a proofreader to author but soon started criticising the quality of submissions and was eventually excluded from the board.

All that time, Yesenin clung to his long-time dream of moving to the capital of royal Russia, St Petersburg, that was, as he believed, the very centre of cultural life.

“My life here is nothing to be envied,” he sadly wrote to Grigory Panfilov in September 1913. “I will do my best to move to St Pete. Moscow is a city without a soul and anyone who reaches for sunshine and light must flee from here. Moscow is not driving literature forward; it just takes whatever St Petersburg has created. There is not a single magazine. Absolutely none. I mean, there are some but they are rubbish – like Vokrug Sveta and Ogonyok. Most people are money-hungry wolves. They would sell their own brother for cheap. Everything here is built on entertainment and the price for this entertainment is blood.”

In the spring of 1915, Sergei Yesenin finally moved to Petrograd (the name St Petersburg got in 1914). There he met with the biggest names in Russian literature such as Alexander Blok, Sergei Gorodetsky, Ivan Bunin, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Klyuyev and many others. Yesenin recited his poetry at the most popular literature salons, published his first book, Radunitsa, married actress Zinaida Raikh and witnessed the 1917 Revolution.

The beginning of Imaginism

5 Petrovsky Pereulok, Bldg. 9  

In March 1918, Sergei Yesenin returned to Moscow that was then the Russian capital. “I left Petrograd along with the Soviet power,” he wrote in his autobiography in 1923. This period marks a new phase of Yesenin’s creative career.

In September 1918, he met poet Anatoly Mariengof and for the next few years, they became inseparable friends. They rented a room on Petrovsky Pereulok, travelled around the country and started a new poetry movement, Imaginism.

Московский государственный музей С.А. Есенина

The movement got its name after Yesenin’s performance at the unveiling of monuments to poet Alexei Koltsov and writer Ivan Nikitin on Trubnaya Square. The poet recited his poem Oh Rus, Raise your Wings. Izvestia covered the ceremony in its 5 November 1918 issue. Yesenin was called in the article a futurist, which made him furious. It was then that the two poets decided to create their own movement with a memorable name. Mariengof suggested Imaginism (“imago” meaning “image” in Latin). Other writers who stood at the origins of the movement included Vadim Shershenevich and Ryurik Ivnev. The Imaginists’ first poetry collection, Yav (Actuality), came out in the winter of 1919 and contained, along with the founders’ poems, works by Andrei Bely, Boris Pasternak, Vasily Kamensky and Pyotr Oreshin.

The Imaginists held one of their first major poetry nights on 3 April 1919 in the Polytechnical Museum building. But the poets’ cheerful temper and provocative behaviour was not to everybody’s liking. After one of the Imaginists’ performances in Moscow in late May 1919, Izvestia published the following piece:

“It has become trendy these days to bring art to public squares and pursue the artistic transformation of our street life. The Imaginists interpreted this trend in their own unique way. They glorify the swearing, the cynicism, the hooliganism and the bad manners from the streets and public squares in their art. They splash this kind of art onto the fences and walls of Moscow buildings.”

The end of the jolly era

The building where Sergei Yesenin met Isadora Duncan (10 Bolshaya Sadovaya Street); the building where Sergei Yesenin lived with Sofya Tolstaya (3 Pomerantsev Pereulok); the Vagankovskoye Cemetery (15 Sergeiya Makeyeva Street, Bldg.5)

The times of whirlwind partying with new friends and acquaintances inspired the series of poems Moscow Taverns and several other works that were later included in the Poetry of a Troublemaker. Yesenin eventually became disenchanted with outlandish Imaginism but didn’t leave the group until several years later, after he had a falling out with Anatoly Mariengof. Yesenin decided to quit his freewheeling lifestyle in 1921 when he was immersed in working on the Pugachyov poem and travelled around the Urals and Asia.

He returned to Moscow in the autumn of 1921 and met his third wife, American dancer Isadora Duncan, who was touring the Soviet Union. They met at artist Georgy Yakulov’s studio (10 Bolshaya Sadovaya Street). Six months later, they were married and spent their honeymoon travelling Europe and America. When they went back to Moscow in 1923, Yesenin and Duncan got divorced.

Московский государственный музей С.А. Есенина

The poet spent the last years of his life travelling, writing and publishing books. In 1925, he met his last wife, Sofya Tolstaya, Leo Tolstoy’s granddaughter. They were married in the summer of the same year.

On 28 December 1925, Sergei Yesenin died at Angleterre Hotel in Leningrad. The poet changed his address and city many times over his life but his resting place is still in Moscow where he was buried at the Vagankovskoye Cemetery.


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