Sometimes even Papa gets lost when trying to find an obscure Moscow courtyard.
Which is disconcerting enough, but what is particularly odd when you do finally locate it, this spot in the capital city of Russia, is being greeted by some bright red British telephone boxes. Just sitting there. All innocent-like.
However, that’s what happens when you go to the Museum of Telephone History in Moscow.
Mama didn’t know the Museum of Telephone History’s Moscow branch was only two years old and a private enterprise before we arrived, which is one reason why she let me stay at home. She wasn’t sure quite how much fun I would have staring at some dusty, out of date technology, dead inside a glass case, which was how she conceived it was going to be before she, Papa and my Wired Up Big Brother went along.
This may have been a mistake.
It turns out that Moscow’s Museum of Telephone History knows that a large number of its audience is suspicious of tales of not being reachable by phone beyond the length of a wire that disappears into a wall, and wonders why someone would bother to call, anyway, when they could just WhatsApp instead.
(Please don’t write in and tell Mama that actually, all the cool kids are now not even using words and are communicating via the medium of interpretive TikTok clips, and even that is due to be old hat in 5…4…3…2…1. She is aware. She is just determined to remain behind the curve).
The Museum of
Telephone History also understands that when it comes to technology,
even moribund technology, what everyone actually wants to do with it
is have a go.
So their tours are very much built around explaining to the next generation the evolution of mechanical communication, and the museum is not afraid to get out the plastic cups attached by string to help it do so. Or teach everyone a bit of Morse code so they can laboriously spell their name in telegraph speak. And even send their mobile phones though a pneumatic tube for the sheer exotic hell of it.
Many of the prettier, more historic or celebrity connected phones are locked away from questing hands, of course. But it’s a pretty eclectic mix of the aesthetically interesting, such as this rather elegant model.
And then there is the curious.
The sinister black phone with only one number, for example.
Observe the British class system at work via the telephone labeled with the rooms of a huge stately home.
And an early payphone.
It also has a lot of fan girl appeal. Phones used by ABBA!
And look! An early example of IKEA mentality with a put-it-together-yourself phone kit!
But you also get to play with the phones on the walls during the tour of the Museum of Telephone History Moscow, while the guide demonstrates how you stand (with your elbow helpfully propped up on the special elbow rest). How you actually place a call. How the bell summons you. How lots of bells summon you. Ooooh, what does this one sound like? Ahem.
They also demonstrate how switchboards worked.
And so on.
Mama particularly enjoyed the exhibit which reproduces not just the feel of different dials but also the noise they made. Mama and Papa, in fact, had a bit of a cross cultural exchange as they tracked down the sounds of their respective yoof at the opposite ends of Europe. Ah, bless.
Anyway. Let’s just
say it was a lot more interactive and a lot more interesting than
Mama was expecting.
You don’t have to go on a tour (although as you can see Mama recommends it, assuming you speak Russian). There is an audio guide provided via Q codes too (how modern, says Mama, who is determined to show her age today). Possibly in English. Possibly even in other languages. The museum seems keen on French. The have souvenirs in French!
The Museum of Telephone History is yet another museum tantalising Mama with the seductive smell of coffee from the cafe area in the corner!
[Actually Mama has just realised we haven’t gotten around to writing about the first one that did that yet. Oooops. Watch this space. *Waggles eyebrows mysteriously.* Although if y’all just followed me on Twitter you would already know.]
The Museum of Telephone History, then, is a small but well appointed museum, and well worth a drop in for Moscow residents, telephone enthusiasts or people who need to explain why we say ‘dial’ a number to their kids. Recommended.
Getting there: The nearest metro stations are Mayakovskaya (green line) and Barrikadnaya/ Krasnopreskinskaya (purple and brown lines). There is a map on the website, which Mama suggests you look at and actually follow. Ahem.
Some kids at school, I told Mama recently, don’t believe in Ded Moroz! They said he’s our parents!
Oh? Mama responded,
I can’t believe how stupid they are. Not believing in Ded Moroz. The very idea!
Pffft. Said Mama, clearly agreeing with me.
In fact, I not only believe in Ded Moroz, but also in Father Christmas, who Mama says is probably a cousin, or possibly a brother. It’s confusing otherwise. That they come on different days and in different ways.
Ded Moroz, you see, is the Russian winter festival magical being who brings presents.
But not at
Christmas, at New Year.
And there are some other differences.
As we all know, in
the west Santa was invented by Coca Cola, but in Russia, Ded Moroz
was invented by Stalin.
Well, sort of. Ded Moroz existed before that.
Originally he was a pre-Christian winter smith god called Morozko. And not entirely tame. There is talk of him kidnapping children so that their parents would give him presents.
By the 19th
century he was a fairy tale character.
We went to see a play about him, in fact. It turned out that he lived in a chilly underground world you could reach by falling into a well in the middle of winter (as you do).
If you were nice to him and to the other inhabitants of this strange land, Ded Moroz would deck you out in beautiful (and expensive) jewels and warm furs that you could take home to your unpleasant stepmother and step-sister. If you were a spoilt brat, trying to reproduce this feat while utterly missing the point, those jewels would turn out to be quick to melt ice shards when you got them home.
(Mama thinks this retelling has itself been cleaned up. There was no mention of the stepmother getting her husband to leave his daughter in the forest in inadequate clothing in the middle of the winter to die of exposure, or that Ded Moroz froze the step-daughter to death for insolence, for example. Can’t think why not).
In the 20th century, Ded Moroz was supressed.
But having cancelled folklore and Christmas along with religion, the Soviets discovered that this was quite unpopular.
couldn’t have him look too much like a plagiarised Santa, though.
So he is (usually) dressed in blue. His robes are long, and decorated with rich embroidery (and fur, obviously. It’s damn cold in Russia in winter). And he has a staff (with or without a knob on the end). He rides about in a troika, a sled pulled by three horses. He even wears Russian felt boots, called valenki.
This ethnic branding has been emphatically reconfirmed in more modern times with the increasing emphasis on Slavic traditions in any relevant celebration. Like Maslenitsa.
There is also no sneaking down chimneys. He is quite happy to turn up at your door at midnight or thereabouts on the 31st with a sack of presents and his granddaughter, Snegurochka the snow maiden. Who is borrowed from another fairy tale where blah blah blah, and then she melted to death.
Ded Moroz still expects kids to earn their reward though. Children need to recite a poem or sing a song in exchange for a present.
Mama, who is not Russian, came to an arrangement with Ded Moroz a while ago that this was not going to happen in her house, so the gifts arrive under the tree in what she considers to be the correct mysterious manner. Albeit on New Year’s Eve. So when we wake up to eat a giant meal at around midnight after a bit of a pre-celebration disco nap, there they are! Miraculous!
Of course, we also get presents from Father Christmas on British Christmas Eve. But he limits himself to a reasonably sized whatever can be stuffed into a reasonably-sized sock.
Mama says she and Papa have spent quite a lot of effort, usually, on tracking down interesting things for us for not one, not two, but three gift-giving holidays (Russian Christmas is on the 7th January), and she is absolutely buggered if some old geezer with a beard is going to steal all their thunder.
Apparently you can
visit Ded Moroz at his home, which is astonishingly conveniently
situated a couple of hours outside of Moscow in the town, Veliky
Ustyug. As discovered by Moscow Mayor Yuri Lushkov in the 90s.
But there’s no real need if you are in Russia over the holiday period. He and Snegurochka will be absolutely everywhere, and under the tree to boot. Putting carved wooden representations of Ded Moroz there is a tradition.
Or, in Soviet times (or now, because nostalgia), papier mache ones.
souvenir tip there by the way).
You can go to a Yolka, a special festive performance for children. There will be a play, but there will also be games, dancing and audience participation*.
We went to a very big one at Crocus City Hall, one of the bigger modern theatre and performance spaces in Moscow, which had a full sized indoor fun fair in what Mama is going to call the foyer, but is actually seven hundred large halls of activities. This made it a bit more worth the trek out of the centre to get to it.
They also have a Yolka performance at the Kremlin each year (there’s publicly accessible theatre inside the Kremlin, didn’t you know? Also good for ballet).
But frankly every single theatre, museum, park, New Year/ Christmas market, shopping mall and similar will have some kind of yolka-esque event going on, and some will even be free. There isn’t really a tradition of grottos. There’s just a really big party instead.
Or you can go to a gala ice skating performance at places like the Luzhniki sports stadium. Ded Moroz is bound to show up.
Or enter a kindergarten. Definite Ded Moroz appearances there.
I mean, I can’t promise these people are all the real Ded Moroz and Snegurochka. 2000 actors just turned up in Ryzan for the annual fake Ded Moroz and Snegurochka parade, for example. These impostors are what get the rumours about non-existence started if you ask me.
But I recommend
being polite, and getting your best poem dusted off just in case.
*Do NOT confuse this with a pantomime. It’s a lot… purer. Says Mama, who is not planning to explain the jokes we don’t get if we ever go to a proper British one again.
Delicate, handmade glass ornaments have long been a feature of yolkas (the Russian word for New Year/ Christmas trees), and every family may well have their own set of idiosyncratic baubles, although good taste might have overtaken the ones they actually put on display.
So if you wonder around any flea market, you can pick up genuine vintage ones, and last year, there was a display in GUM of the collection that a famous TV presenter here has amassed over the years by doing just that.
favourite of Papa’s own collection is the pickled onion. Shame that
small children and then a kitten who climbed the tree once a day
means that she tends to stick to the hand-painted wooden ones when
the festive season swings round these days.
But when she was offered the chance to tour one of the more famous factories where these tree decorations are actually made, she jumped at the chance. And in fact the name of the New Year/ Christmas tree decorations factory in Klin is ‘Yolochka’, in case you were not sure what its focus really is.
That said, I think the tour at Yolochka is more of an experience than a factory visit.
There are dressed up characters who get you in the mood, tell you all about glass, tell you all about the history of glass making in Klin, and tell you all about the history of glass New Year/ Christmas tree ornament making.
Essentially it seems that what started off as a cottage industry making small colourful glass beads for necklaces, morphed into a cottage industry making long strings of colourful glass beads you could hang on a tree, other iterations of decorations and finally went full on large glass ball blowing, albeit still in a very handcrafted sort of manner.
The Yolochka New Year/ Christmas tree decorations factory in Klin was the first large commercial production facility in Russia, in fact.
At this point on the
tour, Mama was delighted that we got shepherded into a room to watch
actual crafstswomen blow some glass.
Mama was grumpy that she wasn’t allowed to take pictures at this point. She also wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the women in the next room who were painting the resulting New Year/ Christmas baubles.
It was very cool though.
Yes, the word ‘factory’ does imply a certain mechanical automation of the process. But in fact, although there is clearly a production line in the sense that it’s a different person who blows the glass to the one who paints it, they really are not joking when they call it handmade.
In case you are
wondering, among the most difficult to blow are the samovar shaped
baubles, because they require you to be able to get three bubbles out
of one glass form.
At the end of the
tour they have a display of baubles and other tree ornaments painted
by some of the more renowned tree ornament artists.
Luckily for you, she was allowed to get the camera out again when we got onto the displays of New Year/ Christmas tree ornaments through the ages. And of course, since these are mostly Soviet ones, there are some really fabulous space themed ones.
No, I have no idea how Yolochka does the cosmonaut shaped ones, the tree shaped ones and so on and so forth. Gotta have some secrets, haven’t you?
And finally the last stop on the Museum of New Year/ Christmas Tree Decorations tour is getting to meet Ded Moroz, the Russian Santa analogue! Himself! We held hands, sang the New Year Tree song, and paraded around a truly large, thoroughly decorated tree.
Then it was onto the masterclass of tree ornament painting. Obviously. We covered ourselves in glitter. It was great.
And Mama was by this
time thoroughly primed to buy All The Things in the Yolochka factory
shop. Luckily they have a range of stock to suit every budget. Mama
recommends looking out for whatever odd animal theme seems to be
incongruously conspicuous among the decorations. The Russians look to
the other great celebrators of New Year, the Chinese, to add a bit of
spice to the festivities. So whatever animal is coming up for Chinese
New Year next will have a big presence in the New Year decorations on
This year, the year
of the pig gives way to the year of the rat. Mice everywhere you
Now, to get to this Museum of Russian Christmas/ New Year Tree Decorations, you will have to leave Moscow, and it’s a good hour’s journey on a fast train. It’s possibly a bit far to go just for this experience. Luckily, Klin is also the location of the Tchaikovsky House Museum. Frankly you really are missing an opportunity if, as well as visiting that, you do not pop over and experience the tour here as well.
Opening: Every day, 9am – 5.30pm (except 31st December, 1st and 2nd of January).
Admission: Around 500 roubles per person, although it depends how close it is to New Year and whether it is a weekend. Children under six are half price. It’s about 300 roubles extra for a masterclass.
Getting there: You need a train from the Leningradsky train station, found atop the Komsomolskaya metro station on the red and brown lines. If you get a fast, lastochka train you will be in Klin in an hour. Buy return tickets in Moscow if you have children, as concession tickets cannot be bought in Klin and you’ll have to pay full price for your kids to return to the capital. The trains run around every one to two hours, more during peak times. If you get a slow train it will take at least 30 minutes longer. One way tickets for adults will be around 300 roubles. You can easily buy them at the Leningradsky station itself, but don’t lose the rather flimsy paper – it’s what opens he gates to and from the platform, and it will be checked on the train itself.
You can drive (or get a taxi). Head for St Petersburg.
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.
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.
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
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.
All before he was
Which was when he
He killed himself.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the interesting aspects of trying to impart nuggets of wisdom to others is that you cannot entirely control what they take on board. Unless you repeat your message over and over in different ways, preferably in 30 second slots, with excellent visuals. For six months.
So there Mama and a group of other parents were, standing in the garden of the Tchaikovsky House Museum in Klin, idly wondering what, if anything, their children would remember after a tour of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s house.
And so they decided
to ask who the children thought Tchaikovsky was.
A poet. Said one child with incautious briskness. Nonono, wait, he added, when all the adults responded with that deadpan stare that Russians are particularly good at and his friend elbowed him. A… musician?
This is not a mistake Mama’s children would have made. Mainly because Mama and Papa had demonstrated the Dance of the Swans in the kitchen while humming the tune loudly and (in the case of Papa) off key only a few days before. That sort of thing sticks in the mind.
Still, Mama was now
interested in what we had retained.
Tchaikovsky died. In
St Petersburg. The doctors were unable to help.
Yes, said Big
Brother enthusiastically. He never made it back to this house.
Mama blinked. She hadn’t previously suspected her children of developing goth sensibilities. But Mama was also on the Tchaikovsky House Museum tour, and recalled that death was indeed how it had opened. And openers do tend to be memorable.
Of course, and the almighty uproar the death caused at the time does serve to underline quite how famous Tchaikovsky was even in his own lifetime. It’s not everyone whose family has to issue what amounts to a press release exonerating his doctors from negligence or incompetence. It’s also not everyone whose death spawns rumours of suicide years later (drinking a slow acting poison that mimics the symptoms of cholera so as to protect a member of the royal family from scandal. As you do).
Still. Mama does perhaps think that the morning tea-drinking habit in the pleasant annex off the main room might have been a nicer way to kick off. Especially on a child-focused tour.
Now at this point
Mama is imagining people looking shifty and wondering if they know
enough about Tchaikovsky to satisfy her, so here are some of the
reasons why you may have heard of him.
Tchaikovsky was one of the first internationally celebrated Russian composers, as well as hugely well regarded at home. Mama has always considered him a very Western influenced composer, and indeed he was classically trained in St Petersburg’s newly opened conservatory, and later taught in the also newly opened Moscow one, which still bears his name. But it seems that everyone else feels that while he did not go as full on down the path of Slavic folk music influenced harmonies as people like Mussorgsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, he did nevertheless manage to annoy the crap out of his old teacher, Rubinstein, by sticking unmistakable sounds of his motherland into his tunez. With added harp. Which wasn’t for the likes of recently graduated students, apparently.
And in fact Mama is forced to admit that if you listen to the very opening of the 1812 Overture, to take just one example, you can hear exactly what they mean, which is no mistake as Tchaikovsky wrote it to be as over the top nationalist as possible. Which is probably why he scored actual cannons in it.
This habit of innovation likely contributed to the fact that almost every one of his new works seems to have opened to mixed reviews, despite generally going on to become phenomenally popular later. Problematic, because Tchaikovsky felt things. He felt all the things. Well, you can probably tell that if you listen to his music.
Luckily, he also seems to have had enough tenacious self-belief to push on regardless. This is important because he found the process of creating new masterpieces often tortuous and it exhausted him.
As a result of his widespread fame he travelled. A lot. In fact, even the location of the Tchaikovsky House Museum is testament to that as it is on the main highway between Moscow and St Petersburg on the outskirts of Klin. Although he only occupied this particular house for the lest year or so of his life, he’d been renting houses in the area for some time previously, because it was both convenient for travel, but also discouraged visitors. This house was the best though, being a little bit harder to get to, so cutting down on the number of times he was forced to stop writing music and attend to his groupies.
And indeed, the Moscow-St Petersburg main road still roars past right outside the Tchaikovsky House Museum, and the train you can get is one of the super-fast lastochka ones, being on the main line between Russia’s two biggest cities. But it is a bit of a slog from the station if you decide to walk, and Mama would not say the route was particularly scenic, apart from the bit when you go across the river Sestra. There are buses, however.
You probably also know, because tediously this is still a controversial thing, that Tchaikovsky was gay. Quite how Tchaikovsky felt about it is also the sort of thing people argue about. Opinions range from it tortured him and possibly contributed to his death, to actually he was content, thanks, sod off.
He did attempt to get married at one point. It did not go well. Aside, of course, from the fact that the person he married was a woman, Mama thinks that Tchaikovsky does not sound like a very monogamous sort of person. At all. A dramatic person, yes. When he realised it was not going to work, he stood in the rain, hoping he would get pneumonia and die.
You can see how the
suicide rumours got started to be honest.
As well as composing and falling in and out of love, letter writing was also something Tchaikovsky did prolifically and well.
The Tchaikovsky House Museum holds 1200 letters between him and his wealthy patroness, Nadezhda Von Meck. These are lengthy, philosophical, wide-ranging, introspective and only stopped when Von Meck cut off his whopping great 6 000 roubles a year allowance somewhat abruptly.
To be fair to her, at this point Tchaikovsky was really very famous, and he even had another pension incoming from the Tsar, Alexander III. Von Meck’s finances, on the other hand, were increasingly in trouble, and her family were increasingly unhappy about her artistic subsidy eating into their precarious situation. This did not stop Tchaikovsky moaning bitterly about the loss of income, however.
Mama feels that Nadezhda Von Meck is worth a digression, not that much was made of her on the tour.
Married to a minor engineer in the civil service, she spotted that railways were the future and argued her husband into quitting his job and getting involved . Hundreds of miles of track later, the family was extremely well off, and then Von Meck’s husband died, at which point, she took over the whole enterprise – it was handing over the reins to her sons that seems to have caused problems in the cash flow – and looked about her for new causes to get off the ground, Tchaikovsky being the lucky recipient of her energy. Her stipend allowed Tchaikovsky to leave his job at the Moscow Conservatory and devote himself to composing full time.
They never met.
At Von Meck’s
insistence. Well, actually this is not true. They saw each other
briefly from a distance by accident a couple of times.
Mama feels that Von
Meck’s idea here was absolutely right, as finding out about people
you admire is often disappointing, at least when you don’t have the
opportunity to mitigate their more irritating tendencies with the
warmth of friendship. She also admires the fact that Nadezhda Von
Meck sounds like a woman of absolute commitment to eccentricity and
strong mindedness. She was, broadly speaking, against marriage for
example. She was also an excellent judge of musical artistry – the
person she hired to tutor her children was a young Claude Debussy.
If there were a
house museum about her, we would totes be on our way there now. Even
though we might have to travel into Europe as she had estates there
as well as in Russia, which Tchaikovsky often stayed at.
On a less well documented note, Mama learnt that Tchaikovsky wore slippers. Here they are in Tchaikovsky’s bedroom, which leads directly off the main living area.
See that table under the window? That’s where Tchaikovsky did all his composing although given the short time he was in the house all he actually wrote here was the Pathetique Symphony, as well as revising a few bits and bobs. It was this piece of music that did for him – he went to St Petersburg for its opening performance and that’s where he incautiously drank unboiled water in a restaurant afterwards.
It doesn’t help allay the suicide theory that some musicologists point to its early echoing of the Russian Orthodox requiem liturgy. That said, the name in Russian is better translated as passionate rather than sad. And there are a number of sections which are much more aux anges than melancholic. It seems, in short, that it might after all be fitting epitaph for a highly emotionally charged individual, whether it was intended as one or not.
After Tchaikovsky’s probably not all that mysterious passing actually his brother, Modest, was the one who started the Tchaikovsky House Museum. He continued to live there himself, along with Tchaikovsky’s nephew, ‘Bob’ (no, I don’t know why he’s called ‘Bob’ either. It’s not his real name. A whim of Tchaikovsky’s apparently).
Modest and Bob did add an extra wing, though, so they could keep living there without disturbing Tchaikovsky’s stuff. Lots of wood panelling. Splendid.
And thus it remained until the revolution when it was occupied, briefly, by an anarchist and his family, before being turned back into a museum again. Did I mention that Tchaikovsky is really very very famous and beloved in Russia? This is much more important than overthrowing the elite and occupying their stuff.
Such was his status that despite the quite desperate struggle the Russians were having in World War Two, they took care that Tchaikovsky’s effects were evacuated in anticipation of occupation by the invading Nazis. Sensible move in the event, as indeed the building was taken over by the German army, who parked vehicles on the ground floor.
Now it is fully restored as a memorial to Tchaikovsky’s life, with added concert hall and art gallery complex off to one side, only troubled every now and again by winners of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, now gearing up for its XVII’s round, coming and playing on his personal piano, and planting a tree in the garden.
Brief pause on the tour at this point while we all listen to some of Tchaikovsky’s piano music while standing in the really very pleasant living room where the piano actually is. This would be the only place you would hear him play. He wasn’t a great one for performances in public, although he would entertain friends.
To be honest, Mama could have done with a lot more focus on the music during her visit to the Tchaikovsky House Museum. As a former bass player, Mama’s view of Tchaikovsky is somewhat limited, and admirably summed up by this video and its concern for accurately counting the rests, obsessing over whether it should be der duuum or der duum, and a magnificent attempt to pretend the twiddly bits don’t exist.
I dunno, perhaps we Russians are all supposed to have Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Hits on loop in our heads or something, but both Mama and Papa would have quite liked it piped over a loudspeaker as they wandered round the house and grounds. As it was, in addition to the piano recording, we got herded into a room and forced to watch the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, which was nice, but still a little bit thin compared to the richness of the available oeuvre. Mama understands that possibly the audio guide tour, as opposed to the face to face tour, is a little more music focused, so she recommends giving that a try.
Anyway. Tchaikovsky’s House Museum in Klin. He’s one of the greats, is Tchaikovsky. His house is very pleasant indeed. It’s easy to get to from Moscow. There is a cafe on site. And there’s a cat.
Opening: 10 am – 6pm Friday to Tuesday (closed Wednesday and Thursday, and the last Monday of every month).
Admission: 550 roubles for adults who cannot pretend to be Russian, 300 roubles for adults who can pretend to be Russian (or who are, y’know, Russian), 190 roubles for children. You will need to buy a photography permit for another 200 roubles to be able to take pictures in the house.
Getting there: You need a train from the Leningradsky train station, found atop the Komsomolskaya metro station on the red and brown lines. If you get a fast, lastochka train you will be in Klin in an hour. Buy return tickets in Moscow if you have children, as concession tickets cannot be bought in Klin and you’ll have to pay full price for your kids to return to the capital. The trains run around every one to two hours, more during peak times. If you get a slow train it will take at least 30 minutes longer. One way tickets for adults will be around 300 roubles. You can easily buy them at the Leningradsky station itself, but don’t lose the rather flimsy paper – it’s what opens he gates to and from the platform, and it will be checked on the train itself.
You can drive (or get a taxi). Head for St Petersburg. The Tchaikovsky House Museum will be somewhere on your left, between Moscow and St Petersburg.
We now have trees and specially widened pavements on what used to be an unrelievedly grim multi-lane highway, Tverskaya Street, barreling down to Red Square.
The massive pedestrianisation project of the rest of Central Moscow is almost complete.
Cafe culture, albeit strictly in the spring and summer months, is a thing (in the winter it’s all outdoor skating rinks, light shows and street parties).
only this, but you can hire not only bikes but, god love us all,
scooters, the better to idly tool your way round the leafy,
flower-infested boulevards, past the restored facades of
pre-twentieth century mansion houses, factory buildings and churches,
or around the ponds. As well as gasp at the monumental Soviet
architectural doorway architecture, constructivist balconies and such
night, it’s all lit up!
And at any given moment you are very likely to find the whole of central Moscow putting on some kind of festival. New Year, spring, jam, history, fish, teachers, singing, war – we celebrate them all.
I’ll grant you that some of the residential tower blocks in the suburbs are a bit grim. But if the Moscow Mayor gets his way, many of these are not long for this world either. Of course, this demolition project has prompted the Guardian to publish a series of articles explaining how these are not monstrous carbuncles with inconveniently small kitchens, out of date wiring, inadequate sewage systems and nowhere to put a washing machine, but charmingly well thought out residencies and one of the pinnacles of communist social and engineering achievements, which all the former Soviet states were lucky to benefit from. Why oh why would anyone think of pulling them down? And rehousing the inhabitants!
Although they are right about the fact that the replacement of the generously sized leafy courtyards and five floor blocks with 24-story high rises and concrete forecourts is less than ideal. And that this has proved a lot less popular with Muscovites than perhaps Sobyanin was expecting. Possibly because in addition to the loss of pleasant surroundings, the developers and city hall have also found a clever dodge so that the city government does not have to keep its infrastructure provision in line with the proposed quadrupling of residents.
As a result, Mama is of the mind that perhaps y’all have entirely the wrong picture of Gorky Park, Moscow’s most famous outdoor space in your heads. Which is a shame.
So what is Gorky Park like?
In summer, you can lounge around on the free cushions, benches and other seating admiring the flowers.
Or you can hire all sorts of modes of personal transport: bikes, scooters, tandems and so on and enjoy a lengthy run along the Moscow River embankment.
Or get a pedalo and drift around the lakes (there are two).
You can take part in other sports too, with a beach volleyball area, and plenty of free outdoor yoga classes and the like.
There are children’s play areas, which are pretty cool no matter what the weather.
Food and drink stalls, cafes and restaurants abound.
You can also climb on top of the entrance gates to a viewing platform. And visit Gorky Park’s very own museum (it’s on our list. Obviously).
There is even a highly regarded modern art gallery, Garage, to look round.
And an observatory.
Gorky Park always gets in on any of the big city wide celebrations happening in Moscow, so it’s a definite place to consider going if you want to join in.
But you also probably don’t realise how big it is.
Neskuchny Gardens are not boring
with the organised fun, the bit actually called Gorky Park, is really
only the start of it.
If you amble further along you get to Neskuchny Gardens, which literally translates to ‘Not Boring Gardens’. These are the remains of the formal gardens belonging to the mansion houses of aristocrats, which after the revolution were commandeered to form the backbone of the new proletarian leisure facility.
This isn’t a mansion house though. It is a library.
are also grottos, statues, pleasant grassy knolls and a continuation
of the embankment to continue to stroll along. Somewhere there is
also a round pavilion where What? Where? When? is
filmed. A quirky and very beloved TV show, it is something
like what would happen if you crossed University Challenge and
QI, let the participants wear evening dress and had members of
the public setting the questions.
And! Mama and Papa came here for their very first date. Which seems to have worked out quite well all told.
Sparrow Hills are quite hilly and might have some sparrows
If you keep going, you will find yourself in the midst of the wooded Sparrow Hills. Through which you can walk and walk and walk, and take in this fabulous building.
It’s the Russian Federation’s Science Academy. Isn’t the architecture just perfect for an academy of sciences? And if you nip across the bridge here you can go to the Moscow Art Deco Museum.
You are still not done and can continue walking though woods, next to the river, past the urban beach, which Mama does not really recommend you swim from, right round to the Luzhniki football stadium, Novodovichiy convent and Moscow City. Although you’ll have to cross the Moscow River to get to them.
a brand new method of doing this has just started up – taking a
cable car. Which doubles, in winter, as a means of getting to the
inner city downhill ski run.
So, Gorky Park. Well worth a visit, especially if you are in Moscow for any length of time, in summer or winter. Not much to get back to the USSR with (you want Muzeon, just over the road, for that) but a lot of other things to see and do.
Getting there: For the main entrance, you want either Oktyabrskaya metro station (orange and brown lines) or Park Kultury (red line). But there are a number of other entrance points, notably Vorobyovy Gory (red line), which will give you a walk through the Sparrow Hills wooded area, through Neskuchny Sad/ Not Boring Gardens and on to Gorky Park.
It was a decidedly worrying thirty minutes, until she and Papa were able to follow the sounds of dacha land back to civilization, popping out of the trees some considerable distance to where they went in to pick a few mushrooms.
This experience was
rendered not less freaky by the story their neighbour then told of
getting turned around on a similar mission and being stuck in the
trees for three days.
Which just goes to
show you that Muscovites may know how to fix the central heating
system with a bent paperclip and a hammer, but are not at all
This is a problem because the Russian forest is a wilderness. And huge. And largely left to its own devices.
So Mama was very surprised that the Russian Forest Museum in Moscow is one of the Russian captial’s best kept secrets, which she only stumbled upon by accident.
It’s a bonus that it turned out to be something of a find, and is now one of our favourite museums in Moscow.
Some of this is because of fabulous detailing of the interior, like this traditional wooden window carving.
Undoubtedly more of it is because of the room full off stuffed animals, mimicking a forest glade. Complete with the pleasant sounds of soft bird calls and running water.
The bird calls are
recorded, but the water music is because of the actual stream flowing
through the diorama. It is CHARMING. We were all CHARMED.
Plus, they have an excellent natural stone floor.
It’s called the Temple of the Forest. Quite right too.
The rest of the Russian Forest Museum is a bit less quirky but no less interesting to poke around, managing to impart all sorts of facts about trees and the other plants and wildlife that you can find among them.
Fruits of the forest.
Also, Baba Yaga.
The docents in charge of the Russian Forest Museum have also been particularly welcoming and very happy to cater to my and my Sylvan Big Brother’s enthusiasm when ever we pitch up.
They also told us that the Yolka, the children’s show at New Year, is particularly fabulous.
Even the cave where the coats are kept is cool. Noticing the owl is a sign of being a child at heart, the cloakroom attendant explained, because all the kids do, but none of the adults. By and large.
So quite why it is not heaving with interested visitors is a complete mystery to Mama. Although her accompanying Russian friend did point out that if, in fact, Russians want to commune with the silver birches, the ceder trees and the many varieties of fir and wotnot, all they have to do is walk about 200 yards outside of any given town. Even right next to Moscow is a nature reserve which is home to elk and wild boars. Elk! and wild boars!
So, vast expanses of (nature filled) trees, continually on your doorstep. Not as thoroughly exotic as they are to Mama.
It may have been our visit to the Russian Forest Museum which gave Mama the chutzpah to go back into the woods some fifteen years after her first disastrous visit.
Or it may have been the fact that every other tree on the trail to the local swimming hole was marked. Mama’s fellow urbanites may be Russian, but have clearly learned to take no chances.
Since the walk takes about 40 minutes and one tree does start to look much the same as another after a while, at some point the locals have gotten creative, and added signage. There’s only so much excitement to be had from the soft sunlight streaming though the leafy canopy onto the floor of moss and blueberries, the crack of a tree falling over 50 metres away, the smell of damp earth and greenery, and wondering if you will tread on a snake while realising it is more likely to be a frog.
This one says ‘mosquitoes’ and is accurate.
Others hint at the delights of the swimming area ahead.
There’s a waterproof visitors book.
And other witty remarks such as ‘sun this way’.
Or, for the way back, ‘your dinner’s getting cold’.
It was fun. But so is the Russian Forest Museum in Moscow. Well worth adding to a walk around the attractively buildinged area immediately south of the Moscow River down from the Kremlin. Which is clearly the subject of a post for another day.
Address: Building 4, 5th Monetchikovsky Pereulok, Moscow, 115054
Opening: In summer, Monday – Friday (closed weekends) 10am to 6pm. At other times, the museum is closed Monday and Tuesdays, but open on weekends.
Admission: 150 roubles for adults, 100 roubles for children over seven (under sevens are free).
Getting there: It’s close to Paveletskaya Metro station, on the green and brown lines. You can also walk down from Teatralnaya/ Novokuznetskaya (green, yellow and orange lines) which will take you past a lot of interesting buildings in this older district.
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
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?
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.
Our visit to the town of Kolomna in the Moscow region is an object lesson in why you should pay attention to your surroundings in an unfamiliar place, as well as keep your mobile in the back pocket of your jeans and not an outer area of your coat when it is minus 15 degrees.
Because at some point Mama got separated from her party and found herself in the middle of the biggest snowstorm in seventy years in the dark with no clear idea of the direction she should be going in. And her phone had died from the cold.
She could have retraced her steps – we are not talking serious levels of peril here. Mama is not that kind of travel blogger. But she was tired, and was also attempting one of those complicated parental manoeuvres where you and your Significant Other swap over which child you are looking after in the middle of an excursion. Tracking back down my Oblivious Big Brother, happily scoffing pancakes in the warmth of a cafe, would have meant this relay would not have happened.
So she asked the
first person she saw for help.
Now the problem with
asking a local for help is that they don’t know the name of the
And although Mama
had previously clocked with amusement it was on a street with a very
typical name for a street in a town in Russia, she couldn’t at that
moment remember what that was. Lev Tolstovo Ulitsa? Leninskaya?
Pushkinskaya? Unfortunately, all of these also exist in Kolomna, so
this insight was not helpful.
Locals also don’t necessarily know the location of every random museum Mama might have happened to visit nearby to where she was staying. And saying to someone ‘it’s on the street with the really attractive houses’ is really not a helpful thing to say in Kolomna. At all.
But luckily ‘it’s next door to the McDonald’s’ is. Thus, Mama was escorted ten minutes out of the Russian man’s way back to the street Oktyabreskaya Revolutsia, and was able to successfully take over supervision of my pig-headed determined effort to lounge around at the Hotel Kolomna rather than engage in tourism.
Mama thinks I have watched too many episodes of the (admittedly excellent) travel show Oryol i Ryeshka (Heads or Tails), in which one presenter gets to experience a destination in luxury and the other has 100 dollars to spend for three days. I was distinctly more interested in exploring the facilities in our accommodation for the whole of our first day, and decidedly frustrated every time we didn’t get further than the lobby before sauntering back out again to visit some other attraction. Eventually I flatly refused to go anywhere else.
Which is how Mama and Papa came to be at opposite ends of the town in the first place.
Well, to be fair, it was very cold, and a free excursion courtesy of the hotel didn’t really sound that interesting. Mama begs to differ though as she found out quite a lot about the history of Kolomna.
The history of Kolomna and its kremlin
Kolomna is directly south of Moscow and on the Moscow River, and thus of some strategic importance in Moscow’s long struggle for dominance in the area. It was officially first recorded as existing in the 12th Century.
There’s a socking big statue of Dimitry Donskoi outside one of the remaining walls which commemorates the time he gathered his troops in Kolomna before marching actually some considerable way away to have the battle of Kulikovo in 1380. Which he won, and although it’s one of those victories which has definitely grown in the telling, in the Russia origin story it marks a sort of turning point both in the decline of the power of the Mongols in the area, and also in Moscow beginning to claw its way up, in a sea of competing small Eastern states.
Worth a statue,
then. Not that Mama has a photo of it because at that moment in the
tour she had lost the feeling in her toes and was wondering if
perhaps I hadn’t made the right choice after all.
The Kolomna kremlin is also worth gawping at as it eventually graduated from being a wooden construction to more durable walls a bit more than a hundred years or so later, some of which still remain. Quite impressively.
‘Kremlin’ being, you understand, the Russian word for fortress, not something special to Moscow. There’s a whole set of them scattered along the border of medieval Moscow’s influence, mainly as a protection against the raids of Crimean Tarters.
The next big skirmish Kolomna was involved in was during the Time of Troubles in the 16th Century, when the succession to the throne was contested by a succession of False Dmitrys pretending to be the son of Ivan the Terrible (the name is a clue that they did not, in the end, win the argument). Maria Mniszech, who was, optimistically, married to both of them, took Kolomna during the fight and harried Moscow from there, until she herself was captured and imprisoned in one of the towers that is still standing. Today it still bears her name. And, apparently, her ghost.
The kremlin walls are incomplete now, not because of their failure to keep anyone out, but because during the 18th and 19th centuries the building materials were re-purposed by Kolomna inhabitants for other things. But as well as some walls, there is a gatehouse and those towers to admire, and you can tour the top of the walls too if you join the right excursion.
There are a number of churches and monasteries inside the kremlin territory or scattered around the town. So if you are into your Orthodox ecclesiastical architecture, Kolomna is a great place to visit.
Mama would like to draw your attention particularly to this church, Krestovozdvizhensky Cathedral, and especially to the splindly red and white towers you see surrounding it. Look familiar? They should if your read our blog as they are by the same architect who was responsible for the Gothic gingerbread palace for Catherine the Great in Tsaritsyno in Moscow (not that Catherine appreciated it).
Mama, however, was more interested in the wooden village style houses.
Many of which have gone full on quaint, especially if they are near to or inside the kremlin.
Of course, pausing to take another photo every few minutes probably didn’t help the problem she had keeping up with the Russians in her party. Mama is unclear if she is just terminally unfit or has not yet developed enough of an irritation with wading through ankle deep snow to have worked out the best way to do it.
Museums in Kolomna and other attractions
Aside from photography there are a number of museums to choose from when you visit Kolomna.
We went to the main
Kolomna history museum, which started off in prehistoric times and
the natural world and worked its way up from there, as small local
museums are wont to do.
Mama has clearly been in Russia too long – she no longer finds the idea of bears, wolves and so on particularly exotic as part of the local wildlife scene. But she did get quite excited by this odd looking creature. It’s a wolverine, apparently.
Anyway, aside from walls, what Kolomna is mostly known for is industrialism, so there are a number of exhibits about that, especially the locomotive factory.
Mama was more distracted by trying to take a photo of the model of the centre of town from every conceivable angle – she was determined never to get lost when visiting Kolomna again – and by the discovery of an English grandfather clock. This shot shows where she was standing while taking the two kremlin wall pictures above. The haunted tower is on the right.
That said, what they do not seem to make much of in the museum is the reason why Kolomna is still not officially on the list of Golden Ring towns – the recommended list of places in the Moscow region which tourists might like to go and visit if they fancy a few days away from the capital. Despite it being super pretty and relatively convenient to get to.
This is that it was a closed town until 1994.
Closed towns were
the ones which had some kind of strategic military importance, and so
there were restrictions on foreigners visiting.
The strategic importance of Kolomna were the armament factories.
This history is hinted in the Museum of Military Glory (fabulous name. Mama says, dubiously). Observe the diorama of shell making!
The museum is small, but the guide was enthusiastic about pointing out the equal participation of women in the death and destruction industry in the Soviet Union generally, and the Great Patriotic War (World War Two) in particular. Hurrah!
It is also one of those museums that takes a personal approach to history, with most of the exhibits being illustrated by pictures, stories and artefacts of real Kolomna natives and residents.
Mama was particularly determined to draw my attention to the photo and letters of one of the Night Witches. This was a squadron of lady bomber pilots, fabulously nicknamed by the enemy as somehow it was much much worse to be killed by females than by your regular Red Army fly boys. Kolomna has an aerodrome nearby, and the flying club attached to it has a long and venerable history. Currently it has a reputation for being a particularly good place to go and learn about parachute jumping and sky diving. If you are that way inclined.
This is one of the first instructors at the aerodrome.
Of the other places of interest available on your Kolomna visit, the one that was enthusiastically mentioned as a top attraction by everyone Mama spoke to about her trip is the Pastila Factory Museum. Pastila is a fruit sweet, and the museum is very well worth the fuss, being interactive, immersive and ending with a guided pastila tasting and tea. We all echo the recommendation therefore. Here is what we wrote about it in more detail.
And then there’s the museum to the life and times of the local writer, Ivan Ivanovich Lazhechnikov, who in theory is famous for being one of the first writers of historical fiction in Russia (think Walter Scott).
But didn’t Pushkin die in a duel, I hear your cry? Yes, indeed he did. Just not this one. Clearly toxic masculinity is not a new phenomenon.
The museum is mostly just a collection of odds and ends and a few dressed up dummies in Lazhechnikov ’s reconstructed family home, and Mama did not, if she is absolutely honest, find it all that interesting. But it does have some nice furniture and she has made a mental note to see if there are any translations of the great man’s works.
Other museums that caught our eye were the one about a type of gramophone, the one about life on a communal farm, and also the ones more dedicated to crafts such as soap making, and honey production. Also with very tempting shops attached.
If all of this history, culture, boutique shopping or parachuting palls, you can check out the fancy new sports centre, which is mainly there to house a top of the range speed skating rink. Even if you are not into speed skating, you can hire skates and whiz round the rink in the comfort of indoors.
Or you can do what my Oblivious Big Brother particularly enjoyed, and slide on your tummy down the moat of the kremlin walls. Over and over again. At least someone enjoyed the snow.
There are also a
number of pleasant cafes and eateries dotted about, in addition to
But what about the hotel, I hear you cry? Did it live up to my expectations?
In Mama’s view the
Hotel Kolomna was a perfectly respectable three star hotel. The
communal areas were pleasant, and they have such facilities as their
own gym, restaurant and cafe.
The rooms included sturdy examples of the sort of furniture you usually find in hotel rooms. The beds were comfortable, the en suite bathrooms were fully equipped, and the carpets were thick. Everything was clean.
Check in was
smoothly accomplished, and reception was able to lend Mama a charger
to revive her dead phone, which she was particularly happy about.
Hotel Kolomna was,
in short, a bit better than some of the motel chain hotels she has
experienced in the UK and decidedly less grubby and with better
fitting windows than a couple of the B&Bs. Also, being a pretty
large hotel building and able to do economy of scale, it was also
cheaper, especially off peak in a blizzard.
Mama isn’t sure how good anyone’s English is, but she can definitively say they didn’t have any trouble coping with her wayward Russian, which is a good sign. And all of the information, hotel services, rules, general information, comes in English as well as Russian as standard. So they can probably manage foreigners.
In short, Mama quite recommends it, especially as it is within a reasonably short amble of the pretty bits of Kolomna and the station.
Revolutsia street. Remember this. It might come in handy.
Obviously, other hotels, hostels and sleeping arrangements are available. Not that you absolutely need to make an overnight stay of it.
Getting to Kolomna to experience all of these things is simplicity in itself even if you do not have a car as there are regular trains from Komsomolskaya station. You can get the basic local train, the electrichka, which will have hard benches to sit on and stop in more places, or the express, which shaves only a few minutes of the approximately two hour journey, but will definitely have better seats and free wifi as well as a refreshment trolley.
So you should definitely visit Kolomna. Mama thought that the off season in winter was a perfectly reasonable time to go, especially if you like to photograph wooden houses in a layer of freshly laid snow, but doubtless Kolomna will be equally as pretty in full summer. And there will be all sorts of festival-type celebrations for major holidays such as New Year, Maslenitsa, Easter or the May holidays too.
So here we are again at Maslenitsa, or (variously) Shrovetide, Butterweek, Pancake Week, or Cheesefare Week, depending on who is trying to explain/ translate the phenomenon.
And YES, I KNOW that the west is probably making their pancakes on a different date, only for one day, and that Lent starts straight after on a Wednesday. Not only is there a difference between the Orthodox church’s calendar and everybody else’s to account for when Easter falls, but there is also a difference in the way it counts Lent.
Now Mama has, over the years, gotten used to the idea that she is going to be making or eating pancakes, or rather Russian pancakes called blini, for a whole week rather than just the one evening.
She has, at various times, found herself planning whole feasts involving just the one basic dish and as many things to put into them as Pinterest can imagine; competing in competitive blini making with actual Slavs; trying to fend off her mother in law when she pops round with approximately 42 000 blini that need to be eaten now so she can make 84 000 fresh tomorrow; trying to get the Russians around her to appreciate a squirt of lemon and a sprinkling of sugar as a filling despite the fact that for some reason this is the ONE thing Russians don’t seem to add to pancakes; and standing in windy London park in the drizzle with her Mother in Law, having a pancake themed picnic, the widest possible variety of fillings (including sweetened citrus), whist engaging in blini oneupmanship.
But she was nevertheless a bit taken aback when she returned to Moscow after ten years of living away, to find that Maslenitsa has now also achieved the status of determinedly celebrated revived folk festival. There is bunting. And everything.
Of course, Mama is obviously no stranger to bonkers traditional practices.
She has to explain Guy Fawkes Night to foreigners every year after all, a conversation that goes something like this: yes, we do burn a puppet of a man, seemingly alive, to celebrate the time we dragged him through the streets behind a well fed horse, hanged him to almost dead, cut his genitals off, disemboweled his living body, and then cut him into four pieces and sent him to different part of the country as a warning to others. You can make your own guy! Well, children used to anyway. And then they went round the streets begging for money with it! We also set off fireworks. It’s a family holiday! You should definitely go to one of the displays. There’s a village in the south of England that chucks politicians and celebrities on the fire! It’s very cool, they even have burning crosses and everything. Why? Oh, well it was essentially an anti Catholic holiday, so probably that. But we’ve stopped burning effigies of the pope now even though they still have banners saying Down with Popery, so you should be OK.
Or rather the beginning of the end of winter because anyone sending Mama photos of snowdrops, crocuses, green grass and themselves enjoying the fresh smells of spring in a light anorak on Shrove Tuesday will get short shift as she marches through the likely blizzard. Actual spring is a good month off yet. Possibly two, depending on when Maslensitsa is this year
Admittedly this sort of festival is usually done by non-Christian observers a bit closer to the spring equinox. But it’s not like there isn’t precedent for mucking about with religious rites according to the whims and obsessions of the age.
Especially as, who knows, in a short time, all this may be less certain, what with global warming and all. Perhaps pacifying the old gods is not such a silly idea after all.
Thus the round, slightly golden and glistening blinis become sun symbols, just as the were, apparently, at sun encouragement festivals of the past. The effigy constructed at the beginning of the week and burnt at the end to remove bad things from the world, is said to represent Lady Maslenitsa, or the death/ rebirth wintertime goddess Marena, depending on just how pagan you want to get. In central Europe she is drowned (or burned and then drowned, which all sounds a bit 17th century to Mama), but the similarities are there.
Of course, some people will tell you that pancakes are all about using up food before the Christian Lenten fast. This was something that confused small Mama a lot in 1970s Britain. I mean, yes, fasting, but quite what was so fabulous about eggs, flour and butter she was not sure. As compared to, I dunno, meat, biscuits and apples.
The explanation is this: the Eastern Orthodox fast, unlike the modern day Anglican one, is strict and effectively turns observers vegan. But not at once. In preparation for the full fast, the week of Maslenitsa is supposed to be meat free. But eggs, butter and oil can still be eaten. See? Pancakes now make sense!
Interestingly, along with dubiously resurrected pre-Christian rituals, the other thing that has made a resurgence in post-Soviet Russia is the observance of Lent. It’s a very dry January sort of impulse, as far as Mama can tell, and not particularly related to how religious a person actually is. Still, following the fierce dietary requirements of the fast is definitely a thing. So coming to Russia in this period if you are vegan is something to seriously consider as restaurants have special alternate Lenten menus at this time which should cater to your every need. Look for the phrase ‘postnoye menu’ (постное меню).
Of course, Mama, as a professional manipulator of people, admires the fasting system as a means not only of purifying your soul, but as a way of getting a population of freedom deficient serfs through times of scarcity and harsh climate conditions.
Which brings us to the final point of Maslenitsa, and that is social engineering.
Fasting in the Eastern Orthodox church is not just for Lent, but a pretty year round thing. It is noticeable that there is a continual waxing and waning of quite how extreme you are supposed to go. Mama is particularly impressed by the very careful leavening of the longest 40 day fast by the occasional allowance of the odd bit of butter every second Sunday (or something), which she considers a particularly masterful understanding of human nature’s inability to keep up a hair shirt mentality for too long.
Or perhaps that a society built along rigidly prescriptive lines with no let up is not such a desirable thing.
It does mean that Eastern Orthodox Lent has to be longer to meet the 40 days requirement. Which is why even when Maslenitsa falls the same time as Pancake Day, Easter does not. Yes, despite knowing the reason for this, it does make Mama’s head hurt at times.
The week of Maslenitsa itself, in fact, was itself an exercise in society-approved letting off steam, celebration and general joie de vivre. Just as Christmas, Easter and other random holidays were and, frankly, are today.
So each day had its own brand of ritualised bonding opportunities for people stuck living together in small right knit rural communities. Or ritualised anti-neighbour aggression in the case of the bare knuckle fighting (300 dead on one historically memorable year in Moscow. Puts the argument over who borrowed whose lawnmower firmly into perspective). Much is made of the need for Mothers in Law to entertain Sons in Law to blini and vice versa. Sisters in Law also have to spend time together and attempt to get along. And there is a whole Sunday of asking for forgiveness.
There is also the day when young men are allowed to kiss any girl they fancy, so let’s just take a moment to disapprove of that and feel superior to our neanderthal forebears.
However, the idea behind it is clearly to have a socially approved relaxation of the normal rules of fratinisation (don’t) in order to facilitate moves towards marriage as soon as Lent and Easter are over (obviously one does not get married in Lent. What would one eat?).
Mama applauds, in fact, the idea that there is some kind of need to actually gain the female half of the partnership’s acceptance of your decision to wed her and some time period for her to think it over. And also notes that the narrative of men being instigators and women passive accepters of passion is not a thought process which has moved on as much as you might expect in the last 500 years or so.
Not that she thinks it’s an appropriate tradition to resurrect today. And to be fair, nobody seems to be suggesting it, or the fist fighting, or live bear-related festive theatre. Or importing Granny so Papa can stuff her with pancakes.
Although there is this.
Moscow-city-government-sponsored fun, big and small, therefore is definitely well within the spirit of the holiday, even if it generally starts the weekend before Maslenitsa proper and reaches a culmination in the final Saturday and Sunday, to fit with a more modern working life pattern.
You can also go outside Moscow, and Mama thinks Maslenitsa tourism might be a growing thing. Everyone loves a good bonfire, amirite?
Expect street theatre, and lots of people dressed up in traditional outfits, something faintly pagan, or with folk overtones.
There will almost certainly be live music. And games. Also hands on activities with villager overtones for the urbanites to dabble in. Mama never thought she’d be standing in a queue to wait to have a go at sawing wood, but then it happened.
Masterclasses will involve paint, with a reckless disregard for the messiness I am fully capable of bringing to such activities. Increasingly, a Marena, Lady Maslenitsa building competition may be happening.
And of course, you will be able to get blini. This year my Intrepid Big Brother tried pine cone jam in his, which he recommends, although Mama notes that anything smelling strongly of pine is mostly reminiscent of the stuff you use to clean the bathroom with.
And on the Sunday, or possibly Saturday, because one should never let tradition get in the way of a well scheduled event, we watch the winterwoman go in in flames. Well, you can. Mama thinks that the One True Bonfire is that lit on 5th November and has not got up the enthusiasm to track that part of the festivities down yet.
If you are lucky, you might catch some other fire related show. This, says Mama, is what we should contemplate doing as our Saturday job in a few years. She just shelved books in a library and pulled pints in a haunted pub. We are less keen currently, but it was a pretty thrilling end to our Maslenitsa weekend.
Happy blini hunting, and a safe and purified journey into Easter.