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The artists' wives whose names are associated with Bulgakov, Einstein, Stravinsky

Amazing personalities, incredible destinies of Vera Sudeikina with her famous "Duties of an Artist’s Wife", Natalia Iakulova, who served as an inspiration for Bulgakov’s Gella in "The Master and Margarita", and Margarita Konenkova, an agent code-named "Lukas".
Perhaps, no artist could do without a Muse, who was able to inspire, bring them up — or down. Some of them were able to ignite the talent and sow new ideas literally everywhere, charming and conquering, while juggling with brilliant thoughts. Not every artist was able to keep such a beautiful, intelligent and independent Muse around.

Vera Sudeikina-Stravinsky

The daughter of a Frenchman and a Swede, Vera de Bosset (1888−1982) received an excellent education. She graduated from high school summa cum laude, studied music, entered the University of Berlin, where she studied Natural Sciences, and later — the History of Art and Architecture. Being incredibly attractive, Vera always had a lot of admirers. Her first marriage to a certain Lurie broke up after a terrible scandal with her parents. For the second time, Vera changed her surname to Schilling and married an actor of the Moscow Art Theatre. Robert Schilling did not gain huge fame, playing supporting roles. Vera finally got into the art of acting — she had both appearance and talent. She entered the Nelidova Ballet School, began to act in films, and later entered Tairov’s Chamber Theater.
It was in the theatre that Vera met her future husband, artist Sergei Sudeikin. Again the storm of feelings, again the change of priorities: Vera seemed to "try men on", mastering new images. In 1916, she went with Sudeikin to St. Petersburg, left the stage, became a devoted Muse of the artist and even began to paint. Alexandre Benois wrote in his diaries, "…Sudeikin must be deeply in love with Vera — and doesn’t hesitate to frantically praise her in her presence. He says Vera saves him, curing from drinking and "evil life".
Vera Sudeikina. Photo by P. Shumov. Paris, 1921
Vera plunged headlong into Sudeikin’s life, and even wrote her "Duties of an Artist’s Wife", as following:
1. Make the artist work even if you need a stick to do it.
2. Love his works no less than the artist himself.
3. Go with every impulse to work, endorse his new ideas.
4. Keep in order his works, drawings, sketches, caricatures. Know each of his artworks, its purpose and meaning.
5. Treat new works as unexpected gifts.
6. Be able to look at the picture for hours.
7. Be the physical ideal, and therefore be his eternal model.
The wind of the coming Revolution pushed Sergei and Vera out of the enchanting love affairs of each of the spouses, in which there were engaged Sudeikin’s first wife, a beautiful ballerina Olga Glebova, and the poet Mikhail Kuzmin; they left for the Crimea. Then there would be Tiflis, Baku, Batum… By the way, ladies in those distant times used to keep albums and diaries. Vera Sudeikina’s album of those years, created with the help of the family’s artistic friends (with their poems, notes and drawings) was first published in America in 1995. Here see some photos of its pages: appreciate this truly unique document.
In 1920 the Sudeikins came to Paris. There, in the winter of 1921, Sergei Diaghilev introduced Vera to Igor Stravinsky. They had a love affair, but the composer didn’t want to part with either his wife or his newly acquired Muse.
"I can’t do anything. I can only think of you and create music, music that is connected to you. What are you and me to do? What are we to do???"
wrote Stravinsky.
Vera became the composer’s confidant and stayed with him. At the same time, she didn’t forget about her own interests: fashion accessories store "Tulavera", which she set up in an alliance with her friend, the artist Danilova (Tula), brought her both income and fame in theatrical circles. Stravinsky’s wife, Ekaterina, was aware of the amorous affairs of her husband. However, Stravinsky salvaged his marriage, and this "triumvirate" continued to exist until his wife died of tuberculosis in 1939.
Igor and Vera Stravinsky. Hollywood, 1947. Photo by Loomis Dean for Life Magazine. Photo source.
Having buried his wife, Stravinsky left for America; Vera followed him. And a year later she married him. The groom was 58 years old, and the bride — 52. This was the marriage till the end of their days. Vera would not write new "Duties of an Artist’s Wife", but being married to a genius, would retain her personality. In 1945, she formed another business alliance and set up an art gallery "La Boutique" in Beverly Hills, where there were exhibited works by Dali, Chagall and Picasso. She didn’t neglect her brush and paints — instead, she returned to painting, and had exhibitions all around the world.

She didn’t neglect her brush and paints — instead, she returned to painting, and had exhibitions all around the world. Today, the works marked "Vera Stravinsky (1888 — 1982)" can be found in auction catalogs.

Work by Vera Sudeikina-Stravinsky. Source:

Vera Stravinsky, US President John Kennedy with his wife Jackie and Igor Stravinsky at the entrance to the White House. 1962. Photographer — Abbie Rowe. Photo source.

Natalia Yakulova

In the memoirs of Valentina Khodasevich the artist Georgy Yakulov appears as an "ugly handsome man," whom she "… feared and avoided communicating out of fear of falling in love with him and… of course, suffering. And he easily conquered women". The Moscow audience believed that the family life of Georges the Magnificent didn’t work out. His wife, Natalia Shif, had an incredibly beautiful figure and was one of the first Russian models — despite the fact that her face was somewhat asymmetrical. The first wife of Mikhail Bulgakov Tatiana Lappa recalled, "…Red-haired and covered in freckles. When she was walking or going out of the car, she was always followed by a crowd of men. She walked naked… wore a dress or a coat right on the naked body, and her hat was huge. And she always left a linger of a very good perfume behind her."
The Yakulovs lived in the house No.10 on Bolshaya Sadovaya Street — the one in which there was a "bad apartment", described by Mikhail Bulgakov in his novel "Master and Margarita". For lunch the couple used to go to a restaurant and sometimes Yakulov had breakfast at his mother’s place, in apartment number 8. In Yakulov’s studio, located in apartment number 38, there was always a crowd of people; his guests were very different — Kachalov and Marienhof, Andrei Belyi and Fedor Sologub, and even the People’s Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky. It was at the Yakulovs', where Sergei Yesenin and Isadora Duncan met. Natalia was skilled at throwing violent parties, and in the morning, with a hangover, she could send her husband to fetch some vodka…
Left to right: an unidentified person, Georgy Yakulov, Alexandr Tairov, an unidentified person, Natalia Shif (at the wheel). 1925, Paris. Photo source:
During Yakulov’s work on the play "Giroflé-Girofla" by Alexandr Tairov, the director offered the artist to work in the theater: time for the preparation of the scenery was an issue. As Alisa Koenen recalls, Tairov offered Yakulov "luxurious conditions: near the mock-up room there is another room, which we will equip for you quite comfortably, Alisa will take care of the food, and we will drink wine with you carefully, a glass for lunch and dinner. After your crazy life in Sadovaya Street you will rest, sleep off and easily make the scenery at the right time. And don’t complain — I’ll lock you up on the key so that you don’t run away…"

A scene from the play "Giroflé-Girofla". Chamber Theatre. Moscow, 1922, director A. Tairov, artist G. Yakulov. From the collection of A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

Yakulov’s studio served as a prototype of the scenery for the play by Mikhail Bulgakov "Zoia's Apartment", which he created in 1925. After the premiere, held at the Vakhtangov Theatre, the name remained behind the apartment number 38 on Bolshaya Sadovaya Street. According to the researchers of Bulgakov’s work, the main heroine of the play, Zoia Pelts, was inspired by the artist’s wife.
Later Natalia Yakulova served as the prototype of Gella from the novel "Master and Margarita". Bright red-haired, freckled, wearing dresses on the naked body, freedom-loving Natalia quite "fits" in this witchy look. It is possible that the coat on the naked body, mentioned by Bulgakov in his novel "Master and Margarita" was a recollection of the quirks of the legendary dresser from the Chamber Theatre.

Margarita Konenkova

Margarita Vorontsova was born in an impoverished noble family. Parents gave their daughter everything they could — namely, an excellent education. In 1915, nineteen-year-old Vorontsova came to Moscow. Clever, intelligent, beautiful girl "with references" was accepted in the community. She felt drawn to outstanding men with whom she always found common topics. Vorontsova fell in love with Boris, the son of the great singer Fedor Shaliapin. They say, soon the father himself could not resist her charm. According to rumors, Vorontsova had love affairs with the poet Alexander Blok, and the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff…

Young Margarita Vorontsova. 1920s.

Sergei and Margarita Konenkovs. 1920s
A year later she decided to marry the young sculptor Petr Bromirsky. Admired by his fiancée, Bromirsky did not part with her photo, and once showed it to his friend, sculptor Sergei Konenkov. Admired by young Margarita, Konenkov asked Bromirsky to introduce them to each other. He later recalled: "The girl in the photo was so beautiful that seemed to me the creation of some unknown artist. The turn of her head was particularly beautiful. And the girl in the photo had unusually beautiful hands with delicate fingers. I have never seen such hands!"
Sergei Konenkov. Portrait of Margarita Konenkova. 1936. Collection of S. Konenkov Museum, Smolensk.
Having seen the original, Konenkov, who was 22 years older than Vorontsova, fell in love. And that love turned out to be mutual: Margarita became the sculptor’s Muse, model and civil wife — her parents refused to bless their marriage. Sergei Konenkov and Margarita Vorontsova married only in 1922. A year later they left for America, where Konenkov, already a world famous sculptor, took part in the large exhibition "Russian Art". But his wife, according to the memoirs of the former chief of the Fourth Directorate of the NKVD-NKGB lieutenant general Pavel Sudoplatov, at that time was a Soviet agent working under the code name "Lukas". The Konenkovs spent 23 years in the United States.
In the New York studio of Sergei Konenkov, 1927.
In America, Sergei Konenkov had a huge success, a lot of commissions and invitations to participate in exhibitions. In 1935, the famous physicist Albert Einstein came to his studio, because his bust was commissioned to Konenkov by Princeton University. After Hitler came to power, Einstein gave up his professorship in Berlin and moved to the United States at the invitation of the Institute for Advanced Study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
. And the attention of Soviet intelligence was not accidentally directed at his work. Margarita, often present at her husband’s work sessions, was more and more fascinated by the genius physicist. In general, she was not a canonical beauty. However, her good looks and green eyes, combined with a poignant wit and the ability to attract people made her irresistible. So Einstein does not remain indifferent to the attention of the sculptor’s wife. This couple’s love-affair would last ten years — until the departure of the Konenkovs to their homeland.
Sergei Konenkov. Portrait of Albert Einstein. 1935
They dated secretly for three years, and then the scientist came up with a "legend" for his beloved. With the help of close friends, he collected information about Konenkova’s pseudomalady and sent it with a letter to her husband, offering to send Margarita for treatment to Saranac Lake — a resort where Einstein had a house and a yacht. The physicist knew that his beloved was working for Russian intelligence. Since Einstein personally did not participate in the development of a nuclear bomb, there was no particular benefit from him to the agent "Lukas": she was more interested in meeting and communicating with Robert Oppenheimer and other nuclear scientists.
Left to right: Robert Oppenheimer, Elsa and Albert Einstein, Margarita Konenkova, adopted daughter of the Einsteins Margot.

In 1937, Einstein wrote a poem dedicated to Margarita: "You cannot break out of the family circle — it is our common misfortune. Through the sky inevitably and truly lurks our future. The head is buzzing like a beehive, the heart and hands are exhausted. Come visit me in Princeton, where peace and rest are waiting for you. We’ll read Tolstoy, and when you get tired, you’ll raise your eyes to me, full of tenderness, and I’ll see the reflection of God in them."

Maria Konenkova with her husband Sergei Konenkov and Albert Einstein. Photo of 1935. Collage. Photo source:
Albert Einstein was very fond of Margarita. They came up with a shared collective nickname, taking the first syllables of their names — Almar. Perhaps, they would have stayed together, but in 1945 the USSR government decided that it was time for the Konenkovs to go home. They sent a steamer to take them back, loaded Sergei Konenkov’s works onto it and allocated a huge studio on Tverskaya Street for him. Einstein greatly grieved over the departure of his beloved; in the autumn of 1945 he wrote to her, "…Everything here reminds me of you: Almar shawl, the dictionaries, the wonderful pipe that we thought was gone, and really all the many little things in my hermit’s cell; and also the lonely nest."
Sergei Konenkov in his studio. The portrait of Margarita Konenkova is on the right.

In 1998, there appeared an amazing lot at Sotheby’s auction: nine letters of Albert Einstein addressed to Margarita Konenkova, five instant photographs, in four of which Albert and Margarita are together, the address book where Einstein’s residences in Princeton and Saranac Lake are indicated, and the gold watch, presented by the physicist to his beloved on the day of parting.

Sergei Konenkov. Sculpture of Margarita Konenkova. 1920−30s.

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Cover illustration: Sergei Sudeikin. A Portrait of Two Ladies (fragment). 1921