TRAVEL / Moscow's open book: Literary tourism is, quietly, one of the greater pleasures to be had in Russia's capital. Robin Buss provides a gentle itinerary

Robin Buss
Saturday 24 September 1994 23:02

'IN RUSSIA,' according to Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 'a poet is more than a poet.' To which the writer Leonid Likhodeev retorted: 'Yes - and a cow is less than a cow.' Visiting the country, it may take some time to catch the wry humour with which its inhabitants face the tribulations of everyday life, but you can hardly avoid seeing evidence of the high status accorded to literary culture.

In central Moscow, statues of Pushkin and Mayakovsky dominate the squares named after them, off what was once Gorky Street (now ul Tverskaya); and every other corner seems to carry its statue or plaque. The standard guidebooks mention at least a dozen writers' 'house-museums', while the Moscow street plan and guide published just before the end of the Soviet era lists 159 museums, statues or other sites associated with literary figures, from Leonid Andreyev to Ilya Erenburg. In addition, it directs you to well over 100 places associated with just one contributor to the national literature, that prolific man of letters Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (writing as V I Lenin). His museum is now closed.

That is one of the problems: most guidebooks to Moscow can no longer be relied on. In these circumstances, unless you are a specialist in Slavonic studies, it might seem a waste of an afternoon to walk some distance and risk losing your way, just to pore over Lermontov's handwriting. But think again. Even a non-Russian speaker may get a thrill from seeing the table at which Tolstoy wrote Resurrection, and there are pleasures in literary tourism that have little to do with literature. You soon find out that, though writers may start their careers in garrets, they often end up with rather decent accommodation, which is lovingly preserved. Half a day or a day spent strolling around literary Moscow is a dip into Russia's cultural history that should compensate for any time lost to other forms of tourism.

Every Russian literary museum has two things: soft overshoes to protect the parquet flooring, and several women of a certain age who sit in the corner reading Gone With The Wind in Russian and supervising the exhibits; they are usually ready to put down their books and provide information, and sometimes typewritten guides in different languages. But their wages must be minimal and it remains to be seen how long the new market economy can continue to support their consumption of American bestsellers, before replacing them with something electronic, or closing down the museum altogether. For the time being, however, the seven museums on the following itinerary remain open.

The obvious place to start is the Literary Museum (28 ul Petrovka, metro Chekhovskaya), just south of the inner circle of streets known as the Boulevard Ring. The door, on the left side of the street going towards the centre, is not easy to find: look for the street number and the plate with the museum opening times. As well as temporary exhibitions (this summer, there was one on Turgenev), the Literary Museum has a permanent exhibition of prints, paintings, books and manuscripts, tracing the history of early Russian literature, and it manages most of the other writers' house-museums in Moscow. But it is under threat: housed in a former convent, it is being reclaimed by the Orthodox Church. The state, which sited it here, seems no longer powerful, or interested, enough, to find it a new home.

The permanent exhibition here ends with Pushkin, at the point where, according to conventional accounts, classical Russian literature begins. Before Pushkin, however, critics had prematurely proclaimed the dawn of a new age in the work of the poet Ivan Krylov (1768- 1844), commemorated in a quiet little garden, beside a duck pond, by a statue and a delightful series of bronze relief panels illustrating his fables, put up in 1976. This square, Patriarskye (once Pionyerskye) prudy, is also the scene of the Devil's first appearance at the start of Mikhail Bulgakov's novel, The Master and Margarita. Worth the detour. If you feel like it, follow the Boulevard Ring, past Pushkinskaya ploshchad (with its statue of the poet by A M Opekushin, 1880), and turn right into ul Malaya Bronnaya, noting the Pushkin Theatre and the Malaya Bronnaya Theatre on your way.

Otherwise, continue along the Boulevard Ring and turn right into ul Kachalova, where you will find the Gorky House-Museum at No 6/2. This, you can't miss: it is one of the most striking examples of moderne stil architecture in Moscow. Built in 1900-1902 for a rich merchant by the architect Fyodor Shekhtel, the house, with its painted frieze and elaborate window frames, sits a short way back from the road in its own grounds.

The interior centres around an astonishing art nouveau staircase, with banisters that ripple down from the first floor in curling marble waves. It was given to Gorky in 1931 and he spent the last five years of his life here, adding to his collection of Japanese netsuke (still on display) and had his photograph taken at dinner among his friends and admirers in the lavishly ornamented dining room. Because of its architectural interest - and not because of Gorky, who is currently well out of favour - the museum is one of the few in which you are likely to find more visitors than warders guarding the exhibits.

Further down ul Kachalova (at No 5) is the church where Pushkin was married in 1831. Carry on as far as the outer, Garden Ring and turn right into the main road for the Chekhov House-Museum (6 ul Sadovaya Kudrinskaya), in pink stucco, easy to spot because of the theatrical billboard in the courtyard plastered with notices for Chekhov's plays. Ignore it, as you go round the back to the museum entrance, and look in the other direction at the door still bearing the modest bronze plate of 'Dr A P Chekhov'.

The museum itself contains other touching reminders of Chekhov's life as a writer and as a physician and the final room, leading to the exit, is now a lecture hall, with a display of first editions and translations, and children's portraits of the writer, made during a school visit. Leaving the museum, turn left, then left again into ul Povarskaya. The mansion on the left, set back from the road, now the Central House of Writers, is the original of the Rostovs' home in War and Peace.

Chekhov is well-known abroad, the poet Mikhail Lermontov much less so, and the Lermontov House-Museum (2 ul Malaya Molchanovka, metro Arbatskaya) is correspondingly less frequented - and harder to find. The simplest way, leaving the Chekhov Museum, is to continue down Noviskiy bulvar and turn left into ul Noviy Arbat (formerly Prospekt Kalinina). The museum is in a small street just before you reach the large bookshop on the left - a dingy pile of concrete and glass, but still selling Russian books, translations, language courses, CDs, records and cassettes, all of which are still relatively cheap in Russia.

Lermontov lived from 1829 to 1832 in a two-storey clapboard house, painted pink, which now eloquently recalls the poet and his time. There is also every chance that you will be alone here, apart from the ladies who will be anxious to hand you the English-language room guides, as you potter around in your overshoes, looking at Lermontov's sketches and watercolours, his manuscripts, books and other possessions. The poet's work may be unfamiliar, but anyone can read the evidence here of his links with the Romanticism of his age, which was also that of Byron and Lamartine. This is the epitome of the Moscow literary museum, with the austere charm of something that you hardly find in Britain any more: a cultural institution that does not see itself primarily as a device for marketing the past.

It is a rather different story at the next stop, the Pushkin Apartment-Museum (53 ul Arbat, metro Smolenskaya). Cross the Noviy Arbat by the underpass and cut through to the tourist-ridden, pedestrian Arbat, avoiding the temptation to pay over the odds for a can of some soft drink. Pushkin lived briefly in the house at the end of the street, on the left-hand side. You will be asked to assemble in the basement, then given a guided tour of the ground floor by a young woman whose manner poignantly recalls the heyday of the Soviet factory visit. She delivers her commentary, room-by-room, like a Young Pioneer reciting the production figures for the Donbas, while using a pointer to direct your attention to the exhibits. She will not fail to mention the letter in which Pushkin remarked how happy he was in this house; you will not fail to wonder how he would feel if he could see it now.

In fact, he only lived here for three months, in 1831, immediately after his (ultimately very unhappy) marriage to Natalya Goncharova. Upstairs, his apartment has been refurbished in the spirit of the Queen's House at Greenwich; that is, as it might have looked if Pushkin had done his shopping at Harrods and never used the chairs. The guide goes off to collect her next group and you are allowed to wander around freely, though pursued by a recorded commentary, quoting passages from the writer's work: piped poetry. 'This is the house where Pushkin was happy,' it ends, in case you had not grasped the theme of this Pushkin Experience. If nothing else, it is a fine demonstration of Pushkin's apotheosis: like Shakespeare in Stratford, he has become less a poet and more a brand name, which proved as acceptable to the former socialist regime as it now does to the New Capitalism.

Tolstoy has not quite suffered the same fate, though it is disturbing to learn that the Tolstoy Museum (11 ul Prechistenka, formerly ul Kropotkinskaya), which was in perfectly good order when I visited it last year, has been closed for 'redecoration'; it is due to reopen this month. This is Tolstoy's house, a well-preserved building of 1822, with an exhibition of books, manuscripts etc, giving a clear, chronological account of the writer's life. One can only hope it has not been revamped as the Tolstoy Experience. Perhaps not, since that already exists, in a more acceptable form, at the Tolstoy-Estate Museum (21 ul Lva Tolstovo, metro Park Kultury). From the Arbat, take Smolenskiy bulvar, then ul Bolshaya Pirogovskaya (noting the statue of Tolstoy by Alexei Portynko, 1972, in Zubovskaya ploshchad); then left into ul Lva Tolstovo. This is a fairly desolate part of town. On the right is a sort of loading bay, where long, almost silent queues form of people collecting the deposits on empty bottles.

The Tolstoy estate is halfway down the street, a collection of wooden buildings round a courtyard, with a large orchard beyond. Tolstoy lived here during the winters, from 1882 onwards; the decision to preserve it as a museum was taken immediately after his death in 1910. Inside, you catch something that suggests the authentic flavour of Tolstoy family life: the dining table laid for dinner, Tolstoy's cobbler's workbench with its tools and some of the boots he made on it, the narrow bedroom of his favourite servant. They say the snowdrops in the courtyard are the direct descendants of those the Tolstoys brought from Yasnaya Polyana. And if that doesn't stir anything in you, you shouldn't bother to take the tour.-


Admission charges to museums in Moscow vary, but they are in any case negligible. Rates are usually higher for foreigners. At the time of writing, the Gorky Museum (run by the Academy of Sciences) was free and charges for the other museums (all branches of the Literary Museum) ranged from 1,000-2,000 roubles - with the exchange rate at more than 3,000 roubles to the pounds 1.

The museums shut on the last day of every month for cleaning (Gorky Museum: last Thursday of the month). Otherwise, opening times are as follows:

Literary Museum Thurs, Sat, Sun: 11am-6pm; Wed, Fri: 2-8pm. Closed: Mon, Tues.

Gorky Museum Thurs, Sat, Sun: 10am-5pm; Wed, Fri: 12 noon-7pm. Closed: Mon, Tues.

Chekhov Museum Tues, Thurs, Sat, Sun: 11am-6pm; Wed, Fri: 2-8pm. Closed: Mon.

Lermontov Museum Thurs, Sat, Sun: 11am- 5pm; Wed, Fri: 2-5pm. Closed: Mon, Tues.

Pushkin Museum Open daily except Mon and Tues: 11am-6pm.

Tolstoy Estate-Museum Daily: 10am-6pm.

Other notable literary museums include the Dostoyevsky Apartment-Museum (2 ul Dostoyevskovo) and the Herzen Museum (27 Sivtsev Vrashek pereulok).

(Photographs and map omitted)

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