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Russian literature Archives - Kidding Herself

Follow your nose at the Gogol House Museum

One of the first Russian jokes Mama learned goes like this:

Once, a man was walking through a forest and he came across a pond and in the pond was a frog. ‘O frog!’ said the man, ‘Why are you so green, slimy and horrible?’ And the frog said, ‘Well, actually, normally I am white, fluffy and kind, but right now I’m sick.’

Not really believing that this was all that funny, every now and again over the years she has told it to a Russian. Inevitably they smirk, which just goes to show that while the rest of the world thinks that Russian humour is a best cold and black and at worst non-existent, in fact what it is, is surrealist.

(Or, possibly, just not very tolerant of stupid questions).

Which brings us to Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, who is known, somewhat inexplicably to Mama and she gathers to Gogol himself, as the founder of a movement of literary realism in the Russian language.

A famously gloomy sculpture of Nikolai Gogol, who sits enshrouded by a cape

Not because he was actually born in and grew up in Ukraine, although that is true too.

One of Gogol’s celebrated short stories is about a man who wakes up to find that his nose has gone off and is basically living its best life all over St Petersburg, independent of its former host. His first big successes, a collection of short stories mixing folklore with details of rural Ukrainian life, Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, includes the horror story Viy, about a seminarian’s encounter with a witch and her hellish entourage over three nights in an abandoned church. A theme that was not unusual in the book. It’s not obviously the fodder for a bard of the boring.

Even his satire was fairly broad. Mama was delighted by some of the quips when she started reading Dead Souls recently. In which, at the risk of giving away the plot twist for you, look away now if you really do not want to know, SPOILERS, a corrupt bureaucrat is taking advantage of the fact that at one time you could use your serfs as collateral to raise a mortgage. Something which Mama thinks might have been much more blindingly obvious to a contemporary reader a lot earlier, and was certainly obvious to Alexander Pushkin (the greatest poet who evah lived), who gave Gogol the idea. Mama, on the other hand, felt that Dead Souls really span out the big reveal quite considerably.

She found lines such as this amusing:

‘Every conceivable subject was discussed, including politics and military affairs; and in this connection guests voiced jejune opinions for the expression of which they would, at any other time, have soundly spanked their offspring’

But Gogol pokes fun at Russian society more in his creation of somewhat repulsive caricatures than the witty comments he makes about them. No-one is spared in Dead Souls, not even the horses. It’s not real life, it’s larger than life. It’s also pretty horrific in places. You can see why people were quite surprised that Tsar Nicholas I was a fan of another work lampooning bureaucratic shenanigans, The Government Inspector. It’s not complimentary.

The thing is, though, that what Gogol is also really good at is descriptions, squeezed in around what Mama is generously going to call the action. The countryside. The houses. The clothes. Little day to day details. Mama found herself wildly distracted at one point by Gogol talking about a road made of wood, which the hero was not enjoying being bumped along. The courtyard of the old lady. The weather. The food. The fleas. And so on.

Now there, that’s the poetry of the mundane. In fact, Mama was rather sad Gogol didn’t just go all out for straight-faced word painting. You can taste the dust. Sort of thing.

And THAT brings us to the Gogol House Museum, which our little museum going collective went to in happier museum going times last year.

It’s not so much the dust you can taste going round, but the coffee you can smell. It was positively tortuous as it was rich and dark and look Mama is definitely not going to be able to describe the smell of coffee as well as Gogol would, but just imagine it was really really tempting and permeated almost every room of the Gogol House Museum.

Upsettingly, Mama only found the café at the very end of the tour, and then we did not have time to go in.

A small cafe, showing the serving area and list of drinks and two chars in front of a window table

Gogol’s house is not really his house, but a three room apartment in the ground floor given to him by Alexander Tolstoy (some relation to the more famous Lev, yes) for the last four years of his life. It’s just off the old Arbat.

As visitors you get to go in and look at the antechamber where they have stored his travelling trunk, which gives the guide the opportunity to wax lyrical about his quite extensive journeying. He spent considerable time in Italy, for example, and went as far afield as Jerusalem.

They talked a bit less about the time when he took the money his mother had given him to pay her mortgage and went to Germany after his first attempt to get literary fame was a flop.

Mama is quite interested in what Gogol’s Mama did about that, although unfortunately no-one else seems to be so she hasn’t found out. The family estate stayed in family hands until it was turned into a Gogol House Museum by the Soviets though, meaning that while financial precarity was a bit of a theme in Gogol’s family’s life, obviously things never got that bad. Gogol also spent a lot of time back on the family estate over the years and his mother was always super proud of him, so there clearly wasn’t any lasting damage there either.

Mama has since encouraged my Speculative Big Brother and I not to get any ideas about playing fast and loose with her money, mind you.

From there we went and looked at Gogol’s living room. He liked cards, apparently. But it is also here that the tragedy of Gogol’s final days started unfolding, because this very fireplace was where he burnt the finished and only manuscript for part two of Dead Souls, the bit that was supposed to turn the ugliness of the first half on its head and redeem his main character, Gogol’s own soul, and the Russian Empire itself. Sort of thing.

He wasn’t happy with it, his religious confessor wasn’t happy with it, or the devil made him do it. Sadly, Gogol seems to have been in that kind of place.

It’s been dramatised on the tour. There are sound effects and everything.

What he then died of, just over a week later, we did not find out for another two rooms.

Off the sitting room is a bedroom, which Gogol, who had a secretive (or possibly repressed) streak, was not given to inviting people into. This is where his writing desk stood, and I do mean stood because Gogol’s writing desk was one you stood up to write at. Very modern.

I can’t remember the exact status of the furniture and such you can see on the tour because OBVIOUSLY this house does not remain untouched from when Gogol lived in it. It went through a number of owners after the Tolstoys, and when the revolution came was turned into flats for 31 families. Then it was occupied by the Kyrgyzstan representatives to the USSR, the Soviet equivalent of the Radio Times, and a library. From the library it slowly morphed into the current museum, memorial centre and still has a research library going strong.

So the desk may not actually be THE desk. Still. It’s pretty snazzy.

Next on the tour, was a salon type room, which was not Gogol’s special preserve but allowed the guide to talk more about Gogol’s writing career and his facility with dramatic readings of his own work, under the guise of showing us some old editions of his books.

A glass display case at the Gogol House Museum with an old edition of the Government Inspector inside, open at the title page

And finally we made it to the death room.

Because surprisingly, the tour of the Gogol House Museum did not start memorably with the details of his passing, as with he house museums of Tchaikovsky and Yesenin.

No, it built up to it.

This is because he died as he often wrote, with a certain amount of macabre panache and absurdity, which echoed on long after he passed.

The guide was at pains to explore these, but also explode some of the many myths about Gogol’s death. He did not, apparently, starve himself to death. He was not buried alive. And when they dug him up, as they did some years later to move him to a different cemetery, his skull was not missing.

That said there are some mysteries. What he actually died of, for example. The doctors at the time originally thought meningitis, the treatment for which involved boiling hot baths and ice cold water poured over his head, and a lot of leeches. It probably wasn’t meningitis, but it sounds like it could well have been the doctors that killed him.

Nikolai Gogol was 42 when he died.

After that rather depressing reflection, we hung out in the room showing various dramatisations of his works. They haven’t got Mama’s favourite one there yet, the action adventure Viy 2, which is wholly satire free but is gloriously over the top.

A statue of Nikolai Gogol outside the  yellow façade of the Gogol House Museum

Anyway. You might be wondering at the lack of photos on for the post, compared to most of our other posts. Well, Mama can only blame the destabilising effects of Gogol’s proximity for the fact she seems to have lost the entire batch she is pretty sure she took. Woooooooooooooo. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Woooooooooooooooo. Etc.

More information

The Gogol House Museum website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the truth about nose picking.

Address: Nikitsky Boulevard, 7a, Moscow

Opening: Tues, Weds and Fri 12.00 – 17.00; Thurs, 14.00 – 21.00; Sat and Sun 12.00 – 18.00; Monday and the last Tuesday of each month CLOSED

Admission: 200 roubles for adults, 100 roubles for children over 7, children under 7 are free. Currently, entrance is via timed tickets.

Getting there: The nearest metro station is Arbatskaya on the dark blue line. Technically this is in the same building as Alexandrovsky Sad (light blue line) Borovitskaya (grey line) and Bibliotecka Imani Lenina (red line). Technically.

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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
Oregon Girl Around the World

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