Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the "Diamond Owl" intellectual game "What? Where? When?"
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ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vera Kholodnaya from Poltava – “the Queen of the Screen” of silent cinema

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vera Kholodnaya from Poltava – "the Queen of the Screen" of silent cinema
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Ukraine is a rather big country – no one has been able to fit it all under one yardstick before and will not succeed later. This applies to almost everything, including the cuisine – Kharkiv, Lviv, and Odessa tables can be distinguished with the unaided eye and without straining your eyesight too much.

For Ukraine, this is only good – diversity everywhere turns out to be a lifesaver. And it’s not good when a more or less large region does not have such a bright and attractive visiting card as a local gastronomic specialty. As, for example, galushki (dumplings) for Poltava.

This dish is just fantastically simple, very satisfying, and, when cooked correctly, is truly delicious. There is no fuss with it: you knead the dough, slice or simply pluck it into pieces a little bigger than a large cherry and a little smaller than a small plum, boil, and serve with butter or sour cream.

It can be not only a separate dish, but also a dressing for soup. For example, Poltava borscht is served exactly with galushki. I cooked this version of borscht in my TV program, wrote about it in books, and I haven’t ever received a single complaint that galushki made someone’s borscht awfully sour.




Where, for example, did the most famous eater of galushki live and who was he? I think everyone remembers this: Gogol’s Patsyuk from The Christmas Eve! Just don’t be confused: his galushki did not jump into the sour cream themselves and then in Patsyuk’s mouth – only dumplings behave like this.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vera Kholodnaya from Poltava – "the Queen of the Screen" of silent cinema
Patsyuk. Source: goodhouse

Actually, Patsyuk did not need forks and spoons even for galushki: he sat “on the floor, in Turkish style, in front of a small tub on which there was a bowl of galushki… Without moving his finger, he bent his head slightly toward the bowl and was sipping the slop, grasping galushki with his teeth from time to time”. You don’t eat bad things in such a way!

And Patsyuk lived, as you know, not somewhere, but in Dykanka – the very one near which there were evenings on a farm. It still exists safely now, being even the administrative center of the whole Dykanka district. Which region? Well, who would dare to even think that it is not the Poltava one?




Do you think a family can call their beloved daughter a “Poltava galushka”? The answer is obviously positive: children can be called with all good stuff that comes into people’s minds, and who dares to say that galushka is bad? And now the next, slightly more difficult question: and what will she be like?

The main answer rolls off the tongue by itself: like a pretty galushka, she will be round, pudgy, and fluffy! One cannot speak about slimness or, let’s face it, elegance, but there is something to admire, something to stroke, and something to pinch.

Relatives usually simply adore such people, kiss them until they feel sticky, and mollycoddle them. But it is more difficult for galushki to get into the list of idols of the masses: here the skinny bitches, who still have nothing to lose, get what they want. In their grief, they are looking for what they did not lose, and whoever seeks will always find it!

So the sweet daughter of an intelligent Poltava teacher, a graduate of Moscow University, the first child in a strong family, having received the nickname “galushka” from her loving parents, seemed to doom herself to the fate of the home favorite. But nothing of the sort!




Strictly speaking, this is a trend in her biography. The widespread versions are incorrect, the traits attributed to her by legends are at least uncharacteristic, and the most exotic details are most likely fictitious. But it turns out to be even more interesting.

When little galushka Verochka was only two years old, her grandfather died, and a rich grandmother persuaded her daughter and her son-in-law to move to her in Moscow. These rich people are so eloquent: whatever they say, you usually listen to them. And Verochka’s family began to live better in Moscow.

At all sorts of parties and get-togethers, young people of those days loved to play the game, which now has an ugly “crocodile” name, while in that graceful era people called it in a much prettier way – the “live pictures”. But the game is the same: we will show you a sketch, and you guess what it was about.

Galushka Verochka played it perfectly, showing her acting talent. But when she was ten years old, she first went to the Bolshoi Theater for a gymnasium cultural trip, and all other interests receded into the background. Only dancing and learning ballet became her main desire.




Parents sincerely hoped that the ballet was not for galushki – the fact that she was taken to the ballet school at the theater rather upset them. That was the social status of ballerinas then. But their daughter asked that so much – and studied there for a year…

This turned out to be the limit of patience of the rich grandmother: her granddaughter-ballerina did not suit her any more than a junk lady or a teacher of our majors. There were other morals then: even Nicholas II thought that he had stopped the conversation about the Duma with a tricky question “And what if they start choosing lawyers?”

All the ballet was over, leaving her to finish the gymnasium. She loses her father: he died in 1905, according to Wikipedia, from cholera, and if you believe other sources, from pneumonia (check me too!). A little later, Vera saw her great namesake Komissarzhevskaya on stage, and it fell into her soul: from now on all the major roles in amateur gymnasium performances belonged to her.

Around the same time, she saw Asta Nielsen on the movie screen – apparently the world’s first film actress who did not make faces in silent films, did not wring her hands, but tried to remain natural on the screen. No one disputes the huge influence of this actress on her.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vera Kholodnaya from Poltava – "the Queen of the Screen" of silent cinema
Asta Nielsen. Source: wikipedia




It seemed certain that she would devote herself to art, if her personal life did not interfere, which usually stopped such inclinations. But even here it did not work out for her like for everyone else. Right at the prom, she met a young lawyer and at the age of 17 she already became a married lady.

Her husband’s grandfather lived for 125 years (so they write!) and was married only once. His two sons brought into the world eight and nine children respectively. The husband of galushka Verochka himself had a rare hobby at that time – the auto racing, and even published the first sports Russian newspaper Auto.

He did not know that this marriage was also the immortality of his surname. Vera Levchenko, having married Vladimir Kholodny, did as was customary then and took her husband’s surname. So Vera Kholodnaya is not a pseudonym, as many still think, and has nothing to do with the manner of acting.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vera Kholodnaya from Poltava – "the Queen of the Screen" of silent cinema
Vera Kholodnaya with her husband Vladimir. Source: zhiznteatr.mirtesen




The marriage turned out to be a success. Although they didn’t have much to live for on earth. They arranged auto races, crashed (fortunately, without consequences), mingled with bohemians at the prestigious Alatr Club – life was wonderful, and there was no way to see why this had to end.

But the war interrupts even a more prosperous life. The husband volunteered for the front, and the family has significantly less money now. Any job you get paid for will come in handy. And what is already much enjoyed, just pushes you to try to do it professionally.

Who prompted her to take the first step? Vertinsky writes in his memoirs:

Once, having met her [Kholodnaya] at Kuznetsky, where she was flitting every day, I invited her to try her hand at cinema. At first she refused, but then became interested, and I brought her to the film studio and showed her to the directors

Theoretically, this is also possible, although not necessarily: there were too many motives for such a step, and there was no confidence in success. Her first director Vladimir Gardin recalled: “Vera Kholodnaya then only knew how to turn her beautiful head and cast her eyes to the left and to the right – up. Actually, she did it wonderfully, but the beauty Vera could give nothing more”.

Nevertheless, he gave her a role – in the then blockbuster Anna Karenina. Not the title one, of course, but the role of the nurse bringing Anna her daughter. After filming, the director said to himself: “It won’t work”, and the owner of the company added: “We do not need beauties – we need actresses”.


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However, her meeting with the director Yevgeni Bauer turned out to be far more productive – he took her in the lead role in the film Song of Triumphant Love, because he understood two important things about her: a) she cannot act; b) but nobody needs it – cinema means editing.

Bauer, a professional set designer, did not ask to convey psychology, but ordered to laugh, be sad, cry – and between these plans he inserted landscapes, still lives, and some other beautiful things. It appeared that there was no need to act: everything turns out beautifully without all this stuff.

Without finishing the film, the director began a new one, Flame of the Sky – about the love of the widower’s wife and his son from his first marriage, at the end of which the characters are killed by lightning. It came out earlier and laid the foundation for a noisy fame, and after the release of the second film, it could already be called a loud fame.

The actress doing such collections began to be filmed almost continuously. During the first year of work, she starred in thirteen films, but then left the father of the Russian mass cinema Khanzhonkov and began to appear even more often. In general, she became a star with all that it implies.




As is the case with the stars, she also became a trendsetter, and she herself created ensembles and styles that were imprinted on postcards in fantastic editions. Even in the choice of perfumes, she surprised everyone, mixing two famous brands and getting something amazing.

Even two children did not interfere with such a pace. The birth of daughter Yevgenia was difficult. For an indefinite time, the spouses were forbidden even to think about new children – and then they adopted a girl, Nonna, because a family with one child seemed fragile to them.

Her work was stopped for a while only by her trip to the front to see her seriously wounded husband – they believed that without her care he simply would not have survived. He was wounded in August, and in October he asked to go to the front again, so there was virtually no time left for him in her filming schedule.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vera Kholodnaya from Poltava – "the Queen of the Screen" of silent cinema
Vera Kholodnaya with her husband Vladimir at the front during the First World War. Source: m.rusmir

They began to call her the Queen of the Screen” – Vertinsky said that he was the one to coin this title when he brought her a letter from her husband from the front. If this is so, then it was not he who pushed her towards cinema, but this is understandable: the stars do not live their life, but describe it later themselves in the way they like it.

Several of Vertinsky’s songs are directly devoted to her – for example, the famous Your fingers smell of church incense. Was there an affair between them? Vertinsky clearly wanted people to think so. But you can decide for yourself: whatever you think, that’s how it will be, because there is no proof anyway.




Her career was fantastic in everything: the brevity – five war years, the prolificacy – more than forty films (only eight have survived until our time), and the level of popularity – people were simply bursting to watch her films, including the period after the revolution.

Have you personally watched her films? After all, it is not difficult to find them – but people don’t watch them… Some of those who do even giggle: this acting style is gone forever. Some appreciate the beautiful plans, expressive eyes, and a monument to the genre that has managed to change beyond recognition.

Their content is perfectly described by the titles: Moonlight Beauty, The Mirages, Forget about the fire, the flame’s gone out, Capital poison, On the altar of beauty, The woman who invented love… In fact, you have to specifically look for a film that does not end in suicide.

This corresponds to the low status of cinema at that time: a cheap spectacle for the masses, before which a “libretto” is usually sold – a summary of the film so that the audience could understand at least something. In cheaper places, the pianist just read it before the start of the session.

When after the release of the film A Corpse Living Stanislavski invited her to join the Moscow Art Theater troupe and promised the role of Katerina in The Storm, but warned that the role would take a long time and a lot of work, Kholodnaya refused – everyone was amazed, but for her the status of cinema was already higher.




The revolution virtually did not affect her popularity: films were still coming out and were watched even more. The Soviet government was going her way: her sister Sophia wrote that in conditions of austerity, the new authorities, “knowing that Vera Kholodnaya was being filmed, provided electricity and film as uninterruptedly as possible”.

In the summer of 1918, the film expedition set off to shoot on location in Odessa. No one thought that most of its participants would never return. The fronts of the civil war cut off Odessa from the capitals; in Odessa itself, the authorities changed as if it were a vaudeville. But the filming went on. She would never see her husband again: the Bolsheviks shot him, and there is no point in wondering why.

The very life of Kholodnaya in Odessa is described in vaudeville language. For example, in the rather adventurous novel by Yuri Smolich about that time, Dawn over the Sea, and in the operetta At Dawn written from the novel, she appears as a fatal beauty from her own film.

There is no significant figure of those times that was not credited with having an affair with her: the French consul Ennault, the white general Grishin-Almazov (the last name is clearly from her film), the French general Fredambert (Freudenberg, of course, this is Odessa!). And, naturally, Utyosov and Mishka Yaponchik.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vera Kholodnaya from Poltava – "the Queen of the Screen" of silent cinema
Vera Kholodnaya in The Last Tango. Source: 24smi




But the end of this operetta was tragic. A glass of water froze in her hotel room. And on February 8, 1919, after a charity concert, where the audience in the hall sat in fur coats, and the performers were in open dresses, she caught a cold and fell ill.

It was the Spanish flu – the worst form of the flu, an epidemic that killed millions. Actually, Spain did not have it: it was just that the press of non-belligerent Spain could write about it, while newspapers in other countries were forbidden to do so by military censorship. I can’t remember anything more similar to the current COVID.

Professors Korovitsky and Uskov treated her as best as they could – with aspirin and camphor alcohol. She died on February 16. The cathedral where she was buried was overcrowded. The crowds followed her coffin, the funeral was filmed, and in March she was shown in all cinemas – in her last film.

Many said that she was killed: strangled by her lover, poisoned by the intelligence service, or robbed by bandits… Of course, it was not possible to transport her to Moscow, so she was buried in Odessa. The whole Odessa part of her life is operetta, another genre, so you should judge stories about her according to its laws.




Why only eight of her films have survived? After all, there were thousands of copies… And this is our dear Sofia Vlasyevna: her films began to be brought to the requirements of the new aesthetics. Here, for example, is the caption added to the beginning of the film – and I quote verbatim.

“Its content is wretched and insignificant. Love, money, tailcoats, “good manners” are an excellent example of the use of cinema to show the “charms” of bourgeois life – as the ideal of every person”. Films were not allowed to be shown without such captions…

Honestly, I didn’t even change the spelling! Is it surprising that out of more than forty of her films, only eight have miraculously survived? Perhaps only the fact that there are so many of them… And Soviet film critics evaluated her talent at the below-the-plinth level. Only now it is clear that untalented people are not watched like that.


ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vera Kholodnaya from Poltava – "the Queen of the Screen" of silent cinema
Cenotaph of Vera Kholodnaya. Source: m-necropol

And nowadays her memory is honored. Nikita Mikhalkov’s film A Slave of Love, where the parallels between the fate of his heroine and Vera Kholodnaya are undeniable, enjoyed great success at one time, and the phrase “Gentlemen, you are beasts” became a widespread saying.

In Odessa, near the house of Papudov, where she died, a monument to her was erected back in 2003. And the square next to it, where there is a monument to Katayev’s Petia and Gavrik, is now called Vera Kholodnaya Square. However, her native Poltava did not name the streets after its locally-born galushka. How is that possible?

Just wrote about it – and my readers corrected me immediately. Actually there exists one – not a street, but a lane – between Bezvirnitskaya and Sakko streets. It turns out that not all maps still have it, but the most important thing is that it exists there in general. Sorry, dear Poltava residents – and thank you for correcting it. That’s right!

In 2013, a postage stamp dedicated to the 120th anniversary of her birth was issued in Ukraine. At the Second Christian Cemetery, her cenotaph was installed in the grave of her director Chardynin, just like in San Francisco. And what about a monument on her grave?

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Vera Kholodnaya from Poltava – "the Queen of the Screen" of silent cinema
Ukrainian postage stamp commemorating the 120th anniversary of the birth of Vera Holodnaya. Source: wikipedia

There is no place to put it here: in 1931 the First Christian cemetery became a park. The ashes of Kholodnaya were going to be moved to Moscow, but somehow it got played out. There is no monument on the grave because there is no grave. The entire Odessa is her grave, and she is everywhere in Odessa.

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