Mama has, over the years, read her way through at least one book by most Russian language writers who are not poets.
I wouldn’t say this has been a hardship, Russian writers are a lot less dour than they are given credit for. Except Dostoevsky. Don’t read him.
But she has read nothing by Maxim Gorky.
Which seemed odd given that he was a writer so famous they named the central park after him.
The thing is, Mama came to Gorky via Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, a book about the extensive network of political prison camps, how they came about, what life was like in them, who got sent there and what it did to them.
Gorky pops up in the bit about the building of the White Sea – Baltic Canal, a project notorious for the number of its laborers, the majority of them from the gulags, it killed. Gorky praised it. He also praised one of the original gulags out on the Solovetsky Islands after he went on a visit there. He is supposed to have righted a newspaper, held upside down in protest by a zek (political prisoner) at the fact that they had been cleaned up and given leisure time and so on for the visit, thus showing his understanding of the deception and his sympathies for the condition of the prisoners.
But what he actually wrote about it was… different.
So Mama had got the impression that Gorky’s fame was mostly built on being a Stalin apologist for hire, and didn’t really feel the need to delve much deeper. Because Mama does not approve of Stalin apologists. Whether for hire or not.
During his time in the Soviet Union Gorky was given a house with a very fabulous staircase in it, and Mama has wanted to see this staircase for quite some time. So off, eventually, we popped to have a look a it. The Gorky House Museum came as a bonus.
This house is one of a number of buildings in Moscow built at a time when Art Nouveau (what the Russians call Style Modern, with a decidedly French accent) was all the rage. The Gorky House Museum is a particularly shining example of this.
Of course, it wasn’t Gorky’s house to begin with.
No, it was constructed for the wealthy banker and industrialist, Stepan Ryabushinsky, who among other things started the first car factory in Russia. This was rebranded after the revolution as ZIL, the famous maker of Soviet cars, jeeps, tractors, trucks and so on. It’s been knocked down now, and is being turned into a cultural centre. Very Post Soviet Moscow.
But the name more properly associated with the house is Fyodor Shekhtel, the architect, who had a number of Art Nouveau projects on the go in the 1900s. Most of these now belong to embassies so are hard to get inside.
He also dabbled in some rather fabulous theatre costume designs. As you do.
The Shekhtel House, then, is thoroughly Style Modern from top to bottom, with the possible exception of the hidden Russian Orthodox chapel at the top. Not because Gorky turned out to be a secret Christian in an atheist communist world, but because the Ryabushinsky family were Old Believers, a version of Orthodoxy that was frowned upon in Russia, well before the Revolution.
Mama sold Art Nouveau to us by explaining that that artists of this persuasion tried to do is take the natural world, plants, flowers and ANIMALS as their inspiration. She sold a visit to the Ryabushinsky Mansion to us with the challenge of trying to spot as many of these little details as we went round as possible.
This turned out to be a very fruitful pastime. There are animals (and plants) in the mouldings, the lintels, the wall and door panels, in the stained glass windows, as well as tiled areas on the outside.
Th window frames are particularly fascinating. To Mama (no animals for us).
But when we were chatting to the cloakroom attendant at the end of our tour, and she had got out the big Shekhtel book to show us more of the animal theatre costumes than were displayed on the walls, she also quizzed us on what we had spotted in the house.
Turns out there are more animals than even my Animal Obsessed Big Brother had imagined possible, even though he had to hang around for quite a long time looking for them while Mama tried to get the perfect photo of the staircase.
Now we know where more are to be found, we will have to go back. Don’t make the same mistake. There is an owl here. Can you see it?
Anyway. The Ryabushinsky/ Shekhtal mansion is a pretty fabulous one by anyone’s standards, and that’s before you are told it was designed with air conditioning and spot lighting. And the fact that Maxim Gorky was given it moved Mama to perhaps think that she had better find out what the actual deal with was him after all.
‘Gorky’ is the Russian word for ‘bitter’ and is not his original name, which was Alexey Maximovich Peshkov.
It turns out that Gorky grew up in difficult circumstances in Nizhney Novgorod, very nearly committing suicide around the age of twenty. Experiences arising from this childhood as well as extensive travel on foot around the Russian Empire led him into writing vividly angry journalism, vividly angry novels, vividly angry short stories, vividly angry plays and vividly angry essays of gritty social realism about the harsh realities of being poor or marginalised in Tsarist Russia in the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th .
A very sobering contrast to the life of a cultured and fabulously rich merchant able to commission elegant harmonious living spaces from brilliant architects and contemplate the universe from his religious hidey hole in peace.
In fact, Mama says as a writer and social commentator he was Charles Dickens on crack. Especially as he spent the (failed) 1905 revolution attempt in St Petersburg constructing home made bombs in some random apartment with a whole bunch of very energetic Marxists. After which he was exiled.
And went to Capri.
Anyway. It was actually Gorky’s pre-revolutionary writings and activities that make him a hero of the Soviet Union, what with the favourable publicity and support that they brought to the cause when they went viral around the world. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature five times.
Obviously he knew Lenin. He wasn’t, apparently, very impressed by Lenin, which is another point in his favour, says Mama, who is also not a Vladimir Ilyich Lenin fan. Although he did agree to front a Bolshevik fundraising drive in America at one point. In the end this was somewhat stymied by him taking along his girlfriend, rather than his actual wife, for the duration. The Americans were not, by and large, impressed by this, despite having much more time for his writing than you would expect given how thoroughly freaked out they seem to be if anyone mentions the phrase ‘socialised medicine’ today.
Mama also says.
Mama is in a decidedly spiky mood today, I see.
Mama also notes that Maxim Gorky seems to have a thing for interesting women, which is probably the best thing about him. His wife, Ekaterina Peshkova, worked tirelessly to advocate for artists, writers and so on caught up first in repressions of Tsarism, work she continued, vigourously, in communist times as one of the most effective members of the Political Prisoners Relief organisation.
And one of his later girlfriends was Moura Budberg. Who was a Soviet/ British double agent. After ending her association with Gorky, she ended up in England, where she repeatedly refused to marry HG Wells, of allegorical time travelling fame. She is also, incidentally, the Half Great (Great?) Aunt of Nick Clegg, which is possibly taking six degrees of separation a bit far, but still amusing to Mama.
What with one thing and another (Lenin didn’t like him any more than he liked Lenin), after the actual revolution, Gorky left and went to Sorrento, along a fairly large household of girlfriends, his ex wife and his children, adopted and otherwise. The reason why he ended up back in Russia again is a bit unclear. Mama, who cannot entirely shake her initial bad impression of Gorky, thinks it is either because he ran out of money, revolutionary writings now being less popular around the world once revolutionary reality had engulfed Russia and the surrounding area, or because he wanted to experience first hand some of the adulation he was nevertheless still getting inside the USSR (being conveniently out of the way).
He certainly got a very cushy number in the Ryabushinsky Mansion, but his return was definitely also a propaganda coup for the communist regime. It seems he was expected to act, as president of the Union of Soviet Writers, as a sort of cultural ambassador and host to writers and so on from abroad, with the magnificent Art Nouveau staircase and so on as a backdrop. So perhaps one shouldn’t see it as entirely a gift without strings attached. Especially as there is also a suggestion that, along with most of the rest of the Soviet Union inhabitants, fear of what might happen to loved ones, including his children, effectively constrained him from the outspoken criticism of a repressive regime that had characterised his early life.
Here is his place at the table set up with tea things.
He himself actually complained that the house was too grand.
Here is his bed.
He also said that he was continually watched.
Hence his behaviour, it is said, with regard to the canal and the
Solovetsky Islands .
Sigh, says Mama, who is not one of those people who goes around saying, deludedly, ‘if I lived at the time then I would have DONE SOMETHING’ from the perspective of a comfortable middle class lifestyle.
And Gorky only actually lived for four years after his return the the USSR, dying in 1938 at the age of 68. His son died before him. Rumours that one or both of them were purposefully killed abound. Naturally.
So, it might be better after all to focus on the interior of the house rather than the details of Gorky’s life, and thank our lucky stars that Shekhtel’s architectural masterpiece was, for whatever reason, preserved.
At one point before Gorky moved in, for example, Gorky’s house was a kindergarten. An experimental kindergarten.
!!!!!!!???????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????? Says Mama, worried about her staircase.
Whhhhhheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Say I, and my Obsessed Big Brother has just gone green with envy.
Among the preservees, says Mama, who is clearly determined to cram every last little tidbit of information she knows about this building into this review, was Nadezhda Peshkova, a painter and Gorky’s son’s widow. She lived in the house until 1965 and was then instrumental in having it turned into the Gorky House Museum.
That said, there is a certain lack of fine detail in some of the restoration. Russia, Mama says, is clearly not very used to actually having anything left to preserve and restore, so they do not seem to be doing a very good job of it. Rebuilding whole palaces from scratch in Kolomenskoye and Tsaritsyno parks is really not quite the same. Told you she was in a funny mood.
The staircase, in particular is TOTALLY worth it.
Although we really preferred the jellyfish lamp.
And if you go up the stairs and look down, be sure to notice the turtle styling from above, this being another of the little secrets given to us by our connection in the cloakroom.
Address: 6/2 Malaya Nikitskaya, just up from Tverskoi Boulevard, and across the road from the very church where Alexander Pushkin got married to the most beautiful woman in Russia.
Opening: Wednesday to Sunday, 11am to 5.30pm. Every third Thursday in the month Gorky’s house is also closed.
Admission: Adults are 300 roubles, kids are 100 roubles and if you are very obviously foreign like Mama you pay 400 roubles. Don’t forget to add the photo pass for 100 roubles.
Getting there: The nearest metro stations are probably the three connected ones of Pushkinskaya (purple line), Chekovskaya (grey line) and Tverskaya (green line), although see also Arbatskaya (both blue lines) and their connectiong stations on the red and grey lines, and also Barrikadnaya/ Krasnopresnehskaya (purple/ brown lines). It’s a good ten to fifteen minutes walk from any of these.
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