The museum was a large, airy building dating to the 1970s with 90 sculptures occupying the top floor. As we wondered about the large open spaces of sculptures, it was a wonder to see how accurately Erzia captured emotions in the faces of his subjects. From terror to mirth, all human sentiments were captured with unique precision in the dark knots of the quebracho wood, or the white sparkling marble, or the perforated greyness of reinforced concrete.
After an uninspiring guided tour from a bleak middle-aged woman, I struck up a conversation with a museum worker who sat close by several sculptures of wildly dancing and swirling figures. To my astonishment, Ludmila Gregorievna was not only eager to talk about herself and ask me everything about my life, but also to reveal some fascinating secrets hidden in the works of Erzia themselves!
"I'm actually from Latvia, from a town 40 km away from Riga," she said, "my husband was in the military, he was transferred to Saransk to serve in 1992, and I've worked in the museum for the past nine years. I didn't know anything about Erzia before, being that I'm from Lativa, but since working here I've read plenty of books, and have listened to plenty of tours! A few years ago a woman from Yaroslavl even took an interview from me! She said she was going to write an article about me in her city."
I informed her that I had the same idea, and asked her about her favorite work. "This one," she pointed, "it's called 'The Dance'. But you know, it's not really a dance at all. It's the Fall of Man! 'The Dance' is just what the sculptor called it so that it wouldn't be destroyed when he came back from Argentina to the Soviet Union in 1950."
At this point she lowered her voice and continued in a hurried whisper: "When he came back religion was banned here, so he called it 'The Dance'. But over there you can see Adam, and Eve is coming out of his rib, on the other side. And over here, with the head bowed, that's a sad angel! It had big, big wings before but they were broken in the transportation. And all of them are falling, falling, falling down to the sinful earth! The real title of this sculpture is the 'Fall of Man'.
"And this other sculpture over here," Ludmila Gregorievna indicated, "called 'The Ballerina's Dance', that's no ballerina! It's a witch's dance! Look! She has hooves! I read a book where it was written that the real title was 'Witch's Dance'. See? You can see her wild, matted hair and she's naked!" she said excitedly. "Our tour guides around here say it's the 'Ballerina's Dance', but that's not true!"
"I like the 'Fall of Man'," she said thoughtfully, "I'm not sure why. Maybe I'm a superstitious person. I don't know. But I feel some kind of longing for God in my soul, I mean I'm not saying I'm an avid believer or anything! There's so much I don't know! But still, this sculpture agrees with me the most. All the young women that come around here taking pictures, I lead them all to that sculpture. I tell them 'Girls, take a picture next to Eve, so that you have success in marriage, and have kids, our human line started with Eve after all.' And they all leave very happy!"
We had to pay 100 rubles ($3) to photograph in the museum, and technically we weren't allowed to take pictures of the sculptures by themselves. But Ludmila Gregorievna whispered to my mother and I, "Listen, go pay, and then you can take your picture, just stand to the side a little bit but point the camera right at it. You don't necessarily have to get the person in the picture."
But the most fascinating exhibit at the the museum turned out to be the head of Vladimir Lenin which Erzia had carved upon his return to the Soviet Union. Unlike the flowing, naturalistic sculptures from the Argentine period, it was perfectly worked over so that no natural elements of the wood remained unaltered. This unassuming foot-tall replica of the Revolutionary leader's head was in fact the very thing that killed Stepan Erzia!
"He was old when he died. He tripped on that sculpture of Lenin, and hit his temple squarely on its nose, " Ludmila Gregorievna whispered again, "you can see his blood on the nose still! See the dark spots? He lay there for 3 days before they found him, the rats had started to eat him!"
But girls, you have to be quiet about this," she continued "don't tell anyone I told you! They didn't talk about it on Moscow's orders in former days, and they still don't like to speak of it now. I only found out after seven years or working here! There was a Finnish tour here, and their guide was the head of the Artists' Guild of Mordovia, and he was the one who said this. I watched really carefully when he was telling the story. You should have seen them! I thought those Finns were going to take that Lenin's head and carry it off they were so excited! I had to get in there and keep them away from it!
I marveled at her story, and wondered why our tour guide did not say anything about it. "You know, none of the other tour guides have ever mentioned anything!" she said, sharing in my bewilderment, "I don't know why! Go look at the nose! But by yourself, I'll stay over here. They don't' like me to talk about it."
"When he came back to the USSR, the soviet sculptors criticized him a lot," she said at length, "because they thought that nature did more to make his art than he did. See, some of these works are just pieces of wood and he made but a few carved lines! But this is true talent! To be able to see and reveal the hidden natures of these wood pieces. See, this is Socrates, and in the back it's just warped wood! Those who don't have talent, don't see the image. In Moscow, they made him make Social Realism, which was the norm at the time. But there he proved himself worthy as well. He worked on these later pieces until there was nothing natural left, there are eyes, and details of clothing, the hair, everything! But my favorite are the Argentine sculptures."
Before long I was surprised to find myself talking about intimate details of my life with Ludmila Gregorievna. We talked about my family and she asked all about how we ended up in America. I did the same.
She admitted that moving to Mordovia from Latvia was a difficult transition for her. "We have so much culture over there!" she said, "but here, all the women drink, and all the men drink, and they all curse in the buses and all over the place! The Moksha and Shoksha people are pretty crude. They can say mean things and even push you! At first I'd go to the market and wouldn't be able to get back, because I kept being pushed out of the way and couldn't get on the trolley! In Latvia, the men let the women in first, and the women let the children pass. Here everything is backwards. The men are the first to push you out of the way! But with time, I got used to it," she laughed, "and started to push as well!"
After a fascinating and enlightening half hour, I left Ludmila Gregorievna just as I had found her and she warmly wished me well. Passing Lenin's head and the swirling figures of Adam and Eve, I wondered at the life with which the sculptor had endowed them. I thought of the years he spent carving at one of the hardest woods in the world, and revealing in it the depth of human emotions and tragedies. And the irony of Stepan Erzia's story was that just as surely as he had made the wood, or stone, or cast come alive with the power of his art, so too was he killed at the hand (or more precisely at the nose) of his own creation.