Raised eyebrows at the Yesenin Museum in Moscow

Within the first ten minutes of the tour of the Sergei Yesenin Museum we were standing in a circle round a tree reciting a poem.

A two story wooden house, which contains the Yeseinin Musum

Yesenin is what the Internet describes as ‘one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century’ and Mama describes as ‘who?’

So before we went to his museum she looked him up.

And given what she found out she was really looking forward to discovering how his life would be conveyed to a mixed group of 5 to 12-year-olds.

A black and white headshot of a young man, Sergei Yesenin, with short fair hair, a wide nose and lips, staring into the camera

The Internet calls Yesenin a lyric poet. This means that he was extremely enthusiastic about just how damn beautiful existence, the world, and Russian nature was. Which doesn’t necessarily mean happy, of course. Painfully beautiful is also a thing.

Here is the poem we all learn off by heart the minute we set foot in school in Russia, the one we kicked off with at the beginning of the tour, the one that Mama really should have a vague memory of, having launched children into the Russian education system twice now. It’s about a tree:

The white birch tree/ Beneath my window/ Has covered herself with snow,/ Like silver.

The fluffy branches/ Trimmed with snow/ Have grown themselves bristles,/ A white fringe.

And the birch stands/ In sleepy silence./ And the snowflakes burn,/ Golden fire.

Dawn, lazily,/ Walking around,/ Sprinkles the branches/ With new silver.

It rhymes in Russian. Mama also thinks there is a more poetic way to say both ‘fluffy branches’ and ‘bristles’ but cannot think of it off the top of her head. Have at it if you want to improve on her translation efforts.

Mama stood out on the tour of the Yesenin Museum, as aside from the tree-worshipping opening, the guides had the habit of every now and again throwing out a the first few lines of a stanza, and everybody in the room reflexively finished them off. Except Mama. Hey ho.

Mama suspects that Sergei Yesenin wrote his poetry the way he lived his life. Because Yesenin seems to have flung himself into it with blind passion and a total disregard for what people might think, any sense of self preservation, or what he probably should have been doing.

He ended up with a childhood spent in a village being used as a gun dog by his uncles and flung into lakes to teach him how to swim; a book of poetry completed before he left school (unpublished); some time as an editor in Moscow; a military career (short-lived); sudden and enduring FAME very shortly after he started publishing poetry (in a children’s magazine); a book of religious poetry; the habit of dressing theatrically as a peasant in St Petersburg’s literary salons; arrests for refusing to publish pro-monarchist verses, for participating in revolutionary activities and later for continually pissing of the Soviet authorities with criticism that this was not at all what he had meant (sometimes in verse); eight wives/ girlfriends (depending on how you count it), who included the American dancer Isadora Duncan, with whom he did not share a common language, a famous actress and Lev Tolstoy’s granddaughter, as well as a number of same-sex flings and relationships; four kids; his own publishing house and literary movement, heavy on metaphor, Imaginism; a drinking problem complete with drunken rampages in private and public and a large number of low drinking dives where everybody knew his name; a drug habit; at least one nervous breakdown; and an affinity for the stray or abused animals he took as pets.

Black and white photos of Sergey Yesenin and Isadora Duncan together as a couple, as well as a large pencil portrait at the Yesenin Museum

All before he was thirty.

Which was when he died.

He killed himself.

Probably.

There are those who say that he was killed by the Soviet security forces.

But there is also a farewell poem. Written in his own blood. Because he had run out of ink. Apparently. Which he sent to his final lover a few days before his death.

Papa describes Sergei Yesenin as a rock star.

Some feat, given that he died in 1925, but I daresay you can see what he means. And why Mama’s eyebrows were well in her hairline contemplating our visit. Not helped when a friend said that when she was at school, the tidbit of retained information a classmate actually wrote in an essay about the poet was ‘Yesenin usually felt the urge to drink with hobos or illuminate [sic] some prostitutes’.

Mama thinks the child may have been exposed to some of Yesenin’s later poetry.

Here is one from that era. Mama has been wondering around after Papa all day going, so when he says this, does he mean that or this other thing? Why doesn’t Google translate recognise this word at all? And then they argued about whether some image would be better translated as ‘I’m depressed’, or whether they should leave it alone, even if it is a bit awkward in an English version.

This poem also rhymes in Russian.

That is beyond Mama’s poetic capacity entirely so you will just have to imagine that part.

Yes. It’s decided. There’s no going back./ I’ve left my roots behind./ The rustling poplar leaves/ Will sound without me.

Without me the small house is falling into ruin,/The old dog is long dead./ On Moscow’s winding streets/ I’ll die, I know, God promised me.

I love this old town/ Be it ever so run down and ever so decrepit./ Drowsy golden Asia/ is slumbering on cupolas.

But when the moonlight is shining,/ When it shines – the devil knows how!/ I go, head down,/ Down the alley to a local bar.

The noise and chatter of the den is unsettling,/ But all night long, until dawn,/I read poems to prostitutes/ And knock back shots with gangsters.

My heart is beating faster and faster/ And I find myself suddenly saying,/ “I’m just like you, lost,/ There’s no going back.

Without me the small house is falling into ruin,/ The old dog is long dead./ On Moscow’s winding streets/I’ll die, I know, God promised me.”

In fact, so rock star is Yesenin, that actual rock stars have borrowed his lyrics for songs. Here is the one Mama has been labouring over performed by Zemfira, who was very big in the 90s in an angsty riot grrrrl kind of way. Mama, in fact, knew the song, but did not know it was co-authored by Yesenin.

‘He led a very full life’ was how all this was covered on the tour of the Yesenin Museum. A very full life. So full, they said, that although he died young, Yesenin crammed what everyone else might be reasonably expected to manage in three years into one. Which instantly made everyone feel OK about them opening the tour with the early death (by unspecified means).

(Mama looks forward to seeing if the death scene is how every tour of a House Museum in Russia begins, what with the one of Tchaikovsky’s house being much the same. Watch this space).

The Yesenin Museum turned out to one small room and a corridor in a much bigger wooden building. Yesenin was only actually here at the very beginning of his time in the metropolis – it’s actually the room his father rented while he worked as a bookkeeper in a butchers. He tried to get Yesenin to join him in this, but Yesenin didn’t fancy it much. This room doesn’t actually take much time to tour, especially of you are providing a, ahem, heavily edited version of Yesenin’s life.

A room full of Russian furniture from the early 20th Century

We ended up focusing mostly on Sergei Yesenin’s love for nature, for his motherland, for village life, and for animals.

This meant that we disappeared off to a different room and participated in all sorts of dressing up opportunities, animal themed charades, folk dancing, rustic games involving things like winding and unwinding wool and such like, and a memorable moment where my Star Struck Big Bro thought that he was actually going to get to remove a live frog from a pitcher of milk (don’t ask). His disgust when it turned out to be a toy was a sight to behold, but luckily the next activity was a competition of guessing the name of birds from their song, which he won. Comfortably.

A table covered with items associated with Russian folk crafts and games

Inevitably, my Star Struck Big Bro’s two favourite stories about Yesenin post-tour are about animals.

Firstly there is the time he took his bread ration and fed it to the sparrows, which outraged some people watching, who felt that if he didn’t want it himself, there were plenty of hungry people about who did. Yesenin was unrepentant, and declared that birds had just as much right to eat as humans.

The second story is about a dog, which Yesenin acquired from a man who declared that its unusually shaped ears meant it was an unusual breed of dog. When he got it home, Yesenin discovered that it was an ordinary mutt, whose ears had been stitched up. Yesenin unstitched them, and kept the dog anyway.

A handwritten poem in Russian about a dog by Sergei Yesenin

It may not surprise you, then, that the Yesenin Museum is committed to supporting the work of animal shelters in Moscow.

Anyway. The Yesenin Museum, or rather the tour of the Yesenin Museum, works very hard to keep you interested in the poet, without actually boring you with all the details of his humdrum existence. They seem to be English enabled as well. If you have got a taste for blistering pastoral metaphor, and fancy contributing to the welfare of Moscow’s cats and dog population to boot, this is one for your list.

More information

The Yesenin Museum’s website (in English – ignore the fact they don’t seem to be keeping the news up to date in this version).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Kurt Cobain.

Address: 24 Strochenovsky Pereulok, Building 2, Moscow, 115054

Admission: Adults, 300 roubles and kids, 150 roubles. There is an audio guide for 350 roubles, but Mama really recommends investing in the face to face tour, assuming it is much the same in English as ours was in Russian. You also have to pay 150 roubles if you want to take photos.

Opening: Wednesday through Sunday 10am – 6pm, although it opens at 1pm – 9pm on Thursdays. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

Getting there: It’s between either the Brown/ Grey line stations of Dobryninskaya/ Serpukhovskaya and the Brown/ Green line station, Paveletskaya, a short walk away from either.

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The State Museum of A S Pushkin is not the one with all the paintings.

Pursuing the loud classical music wafting from the back of the museum, Mama galloped my Untiring Big Brother and Papa through the foyer and out to the very pleasant, airy atrium at the back, where a full-blown orchestra was entertaining visitors of the State Museum of A S Pushkin, the Pushkin literary museum in Moscow, to Mussorgsky.

Mama likes Mussorgsky.

Initially Mama was quite irritated to have her view spoiled a bit by a woman standing up right at the front of the audience. Then she realised this was the sand painting artist. Mama does not believe that classical music really needs embellishment, but we children are much more receptive to this sort of duel entertainment. It definitely helped to hold my Untiring Big Brother’s interest in the proceedings until the concert finished.

Which took about ten minutes.

The family should not have stopped for refreshment on their journey from the Moscow Modern Art Museum on their Moscow Museum Night marathon visit to no less than five cultural attractions in one evening.

Still, they hadn’t actually come for the music, that was just a happy accident. They had really come for the insight into the life and times of Russia’s most celebrated literary genius, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin.

Pushkin Memorabilia State Museum of A S Pushkin Moscow

Who?

You know, the Shakespeare of the Russian speaking world. Pushkin.

Ummmmm.

Yes, well. His magnum opus was a novel-length poem. The rest of his work was either transcendental love songs, powerful verses on the beauty of nature and the tragedy of the human condition, anti-censorship political odes, and whimsical rhyming fairy tales. I see the difficulty here. It’s quite hard to translate Russian at the best of times, let alone Russian which is the distilled essence of language, the perfectly chosen wording of poetry. Especially poetry which is especially renowned for its complex simplicity. It’s not surprising he is less well-known in the non-Russian speaking world.

Of course, Pushkin has a great back story. One of his great grandfathers was a slave from Ethiopia, or Cameroon, or possibly Eritrea (who wound up a general in the service of Peter the Great).  He married the most beautiful woman in Russia, after a youth spent energetically playing the field (and immortalising his infatuations in poetry). He was a bit of a dissident, and was exiled to the countryside a couple of times (but brought back, because the Tsar wanted the beautiful wife at court). He single-handedly dragged literary Russian out of its stilted outdated phrasing and tortuous syntax into a modern vernacular (which still resonates with present day Russians).  He also wrote dirty limericks on the side (as well as lampooning people who annoyed him in pithy verse). He illustrated all his poems with little sketches of the characters (and landscape) he was describing. At the age of 37 he was killed in a duel (over the beautiful wife after some seriously long-term trolling by his French brother-in-law). He out-Byroned Byron, in fact (and was probably less of a shit. Says Mama).

Oh, that Pushkin.

Yes. The classic Yevgeny Onegin has been turned into an opera, a ballet, a play and several films. Stephen Fry himself has voiced the audiobook translation. That Pushkin.

So there are at least three museums which have Alexander Pushkin’s name on them in Moscow alone, and he’s not even that associated with the city (St Petersburg was the capital back in his day. The museum of his life is there. There’s also his country estate somewhere thataway). There’s an apartment museum from his brief time here, a world-class fine arts museum, and one which is more about his life and times.

That’s the one that Mama and the gang were in.

You are going to ask when Pushkin lived, aren’t you?

Well…

First half of the 19th century. What would be called the Regency period in the UK. Fabulous dresses. Great china. Lovely furniture. Balls. Chandeliers and champagne.

Ballroom at the State Museum of A S Pushkin Moscow

Plus the aftermath of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia (who made it all the way to Moscow before being crushed by the terrible winter on his way out). Lots of tension between liberal modernising movements and… less progressive elements. Serfdom was still a thing. There was even a revolution attempt, called the Decemberist revolt (which Pushkin missed because he had already been banished). Further authoritarian crackdowns followed, and thousands were sent off to Siberia.

The State Museum of A S Pushkin focuses more on the aristocratic social whirl than the inevitable march towards the 1917 revolution though. Fitting as the mansion the museum is housed in was one in which many upper class visitors of Pushkin’s time would have enjoyed hospitality from the owner’s round of parties.

Dresses at the State Museum of A S Pushkin Moscow

What Mama found most interesting, though, was the basement dedicated to exploring Pushkin’s lingering impact on modern Russia. A varied and eclectic collection of literary souvenirs, artistic responses in all sorts of mediums, and films on a loop, retellings of his stories.

Pushkin's Leg State Museum of A S Pushkin Moscow

Even more child friendly, there are also a number of rooms dedicated to the fairy stories, folk art and a computer based quest around a Russian fantasy world. My Untiring Big Brother, despite the fact that it was now about 11.30pm, dived straight into the digital distraction. Mama and Papa sat in a chair and stared, somewhat pie-eyed into the middle distance.

Folk Art State Museum of A S Pushkin Moscow

Didn’t stop them going over the road to one of the Tolstoy museums to finish off though. Big band music was the order of the day here, because why not?

Dancing at the Tolstoy museum Moscow

That and a lot of photos of the great man and his family. Probably worth a closer look, although the house is just representative of the sort of place Tolstoy might have occupied; it wasn’t his actual home.

Anyway. The State Museum of A S Pushkin is not, perhaps, one for the casual visitor to Moscow, but if you are going to spend any length of time in Russia, you will be getting very (very very VERY) familiar with Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, so you might as well get a head start at this literary museum. There is even an English language audio guide to help you orientate yourself in the period more confidently.

Just make sure that you don’t get confused and end up in the much more famous fine art museum round the corner (no connection apart from it bearing Pushkin’s name). Or leave your review for that one on the Trip Advisor page for this one, like half the other people who have written it up there.

More information

The museum’s page (in Russian).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the evolution of the Russian language.

Address: Prechistenka St, 12/2Moscow 119034

Opening: 10am to 6pm everyday except Thursday, when it’s 12 noon to 9pm.

Admission: Adults are 200 roubles, kids of 7 and above are 100 roubles, kids under seven are free.

Getting there: The nearest metro is Kropotkinskaya (red line). Turn RIGHT, away from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The State Museum of A S Pushkin is about a five-minute walk away.

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Wander Mum
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