Dead and Kicking

Writer's haunts—and haunting writers—in Moscow

A mural on a building featuring Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev near the Ivan Turgenev House Museum in Ostozhenka Street. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery SharifulinTASS via Getty Images)


Moscow is a city of dead writers. No matter where you look, they are everywhere. Over twenty monuments. More than thirty literary museums. Hundreds of commemorative plaques—some of them with portraits, some with text, and yet others with manuscript pages cast in bronze and flying off the wall like poorly attached sheets of metal roofing. Beware, citizens. Watch out. Who are these two, a man and a cat, both motionless, sitting on a garden bench in a Maryina Roshcha garden? Behemoth and Koroviev, of course, from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Care to join them? At your own risk, for you may be magically teleported to Patriarch’s Ponds and right into Annushka’s path, to observe the unfortunate Berlioz losing his head under a tram. Or maybe you wish to take a swim with a half-dozen horses in the fountain near Mikhail Sholokhov’s monument? Stallions’ heads are stuck in stone, while the writer himself is sliding off a perilous rock slope in a life-size boat, oars and all. The horses, splitting the flow of water into two streams, symbolize Russia’s breaking into two camps, the Reds and the Whites, after the revolution of 1917. Try to figure it all out. When in doubt, ask a little old lady walking her dog. Or read a street sign. “You are in Gogol Boulevard, dearie. That’s the back of bronze Gogol behind you. And his house is right there, see? Run, they are open till six. You will still make it.”

Putin is right: a miracle is what Russia often needed to save its cultural memory from destruction.

Or take the subway—literally, if you wish to be stunned by its marble, bronze and mosaics—or figuratively, if looking for Russian writers in Moscow underground is your quest of the day. There are Pushkin, Turgenev, Chekhov and Dostoevsky stations—the latter, designed as a series of black-and-white granite pages illustrated with scenes from Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Brothers Karamazov and The Devils. There is the Mayakovsky metro stop, unveiled in 1938, eight years after the poet’s suicide and a year after his museum opened in the city. The station itself features stainless steel arches and red rhodonite inlays—the kind of Stalinist Art Deco that would inspire Rockefeller Center-obsessed Americans to give its designers the grand prix at the 1939 World Fair in New York. Next to Mayakovsky is Tverskaya station. Formerly, it was named after Maxim Gorky, one of the father of Socialist Realism, but Gorky is so passé these days. No wonder his name is now buried under that of Moscow’s main thoroughfare.

Sick of looking at the underground abodes of dead writers in the center of the city? Then move to its outskirts. There, a recently opened industrial-looking Bunin’s Alley station echoes, if not in style than in its name alone, the title of Ivan Alekseyevich’s greatest book, Dark Alleys. In 1933, Bunin got the Nobel Prize for his “strict artistry” which helped him recreate a typical Russian character. Well, Bunin’s Alley is not prizeworthy, but there is something truly austere and typically Russian about it: maybe the green, rib-like supports around the platform or the concrete crowd control booths at the entryway? Lermontov Prospect, another distant dot on the subway’s spiderweb, is even less in tune with elegiac moods of Russian romantic poetry. Decorated with red, orange, yellow and lime-green triangles and massive mirror panels, it defies expectations of literature lovers. If Lermontov wanted to have a duel here, he would’ve ended up shooting himself. Recently, however, Moscow subway designers seem to have lost their attention to poetic detail. A writer is a writer is a writer. A subway, a vehicle for moving from one corner of the city to another.

Let’s use it, then, to get from one writer’s residence to the next. And where, if I may ask, shall we start? You were on Arbatskaya, near Gogol’s home, but decided against going inside. Too bad; you’ll regret it. The author of “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” burned the second half of his Dead Souls, in his fireplace. Smoky figures dancing and fading above the mantelpiece are the characters from the novel: a touch of genius on the curators’ part, since we do want to know what’s left when a masterpiece is turned to ashes. You can also hear hissing and crackling sounds coming out of nowhere—the place is chock-full of projectors. Sorry, the voice reading from “Inspector General” is not Gogol’s own. And, to tell you the truth, the bedroom isn’t his, either. Gogol foisted himself upon his friend Alexander Tolstoy, took over a suite of rooms on the first floor of the count’s mansion, kept odd hours, burned stuff, refused to eat and then died right there, where his death mask is propped up in a ray of LED light and eerie music is playing. If you wish to look in the count’s honest eyes, come upstairs. A public library on the second floor features portraits of Tolstoy and many other people who surrounded Gogol in 1852, when he kicked the bucket.

[Tolstoy’s museums] are possibly the only literary memorials in Russia spared during the early post-revolutionary years of nationalization and destruction.

“Was Gogol’s host a writer, too?” you ask. Oh, no, you mean the other Tolstoy, Leo. Lev Nikolayevich, also a count. Moscow is honoring him with two museums: one in a modest wooden house in the Khamovniki district, near metro stop Park Kultury, where the author of War and Peace reluctantly spent the winter months of 1882–1901 so that his teenage children could romp around in high society; and another, in a much more imposing stone mansion in Prechistenka Street, where Tolstoy never lived (metro stop Kropotkinskaya). We will go to Prechistenka first to look at Sofia Tolstoy’s wedding gloves, wreath and candles, contemplate battle scenes from the era of Napoleonic wars and admire an oil portrait of Maria Gartung, Pushkin’s eldest daughter, who is said to have been the model for Anna Karenina. Most likely, the light from Moscow’s spherical skies will stream in though the mansion’s tall windows, imbuing it with an airy kind of charm. In 1911, however, when the museum was founded, the big windows were broken, the floors were burned and the walls were soiled by the first non-aristocratic tenants of the Classicist villa—the Red Army personnel and their families. Choosing this ruin for a memorial to Russia’s most revered novelist took some nerve, but Valentin Bulgakov, Tolstoy’s last secretary and one of the museum’s founders, was in his early thirties then, stubborn and bold. He jumped at the prospect because the house in Prechistenka had a vault with indestructible walls and a heavy metal door. For decades, this “steel room” held Tolstoy’s manuscripts and personal belongings, saving them if not from ruin, then at least from disappearance.

Tolstoy’s Khamovniki estate is a gem, not to be missed. One of the rare examples of Moscow’s wooden architecture, this two-story modest structure is nested in a delightful garden and surrounded with an intricately carved fence. Painted ochre, with dark-green shutters, it reminds us of a manor house on Levin and Kitty’s estate, rather than of the Rostovs’ or Oblonskys’s more luxurious city dwellings. Come inside and let all of your senses absorb the shapes and smells, squeaks and groans of the more than 5,000 items on exhibit—most of them, things that belonged to the writer and his family: desks and chairs, tableware and framed photographs, volumes and volumes of Tolstoy’s works his wife edited, published and sold out of her office in an annex. For a highbrow visitor, there is Tolstoy’s chess set on display; for the rest of us, a deck of cards the writer and his children used. But don’t be duped: the conscientious count did not have much time to fool around. He would harness his horses himself before going out, chop wood for all the stoves, and that’s after scooping out and carrying in enough water from the garden well to last a day.

Here in Khamovniki as well as on the family estate in Yasnaya Polyana (three hours south of Moscow), Tolstoy’s widow preserved everything the writer ever touched, including his last candles and the apple he left on his desk before grumpily leaving home on a November night in 1910 to die nearly alone, in the middle of nowhere. All of Tolstoy’s museums have been curated at one point by the count’s offspring, close relatives and associates. This is why they are possibly the only literary memorials in Russia spared during the early post-revolutionary years of nationalization and destruction. If you decide to venture out to Yasnaya Polyana by car or by train, look out for a behemoth leather couch in the memorial study. Tolstoy was born on it, and so were most of his children. His manuscripts were kept inside its drawers. A writer’s biography rarely gets wrapped up into one object the way Tolstoy’s does into that black divan.

If Pushkin is “our everything,” as Russians like to say, Tolstoy may come in next, and Dostoevsky and Turgenev are a close third and fourth. When you visit the other guys’ haunts, though, you won’t see what they really slept in or wrote on; nearly everything is gone with the wind of time. Revolution. State violence. Two great wars. Desktops cracked and dilapidated, slippers and house robes crumbled to dust, pens rolled behind the floorboards and crushed underneath, bookshelves burned, taking whole libraries along with them. For most of us, this is not a problem, but for curators of Russian literary museums, authenticity spells legitimacy. They are desperate to furnish memorial spaces with authentic objects and, when not available, all kinds of simulacra. In the words of one of such memory-keeper, the famous former director of the Mikhailovskoye Pushkin estate Semyon Geychenko, writers’ belongings are “voiceless witnesses of their former masters’ joys and sorrows”—they “continue to live their special secret life” when the author himself is no more.

Desktops cracked and dilapidated, slippers and house robes crumbled to dust, pens rolled behind the floorboards and crushed underneath, bookshelves burned, taking whole libraries along with them.

To see how this thinking works, travel to the immense State Alexander Pushkin Museum, also in Prechistenka Street. Located in the largely rebuilt Khrushchev-Seleznev city manor, which Pushkin did not live in and, probably never even visited, it offers its audience one overstuffed room after another, all fitted out with so-called “period pieces,” a.k.a. furniture, costumes and décor from the 1800s–1830s. This array of stuff is only proximately connected to the poet: a set of chairs that once belonged to a granddaughter of Pushkin’s sister; curtains fixed according to home decorators’ catalogues fashionable when Eugene Onegin was being written; ballroom outfits donned on mannequins poised to represent ladies and gentlemen a-courting. Memory is obviously preserved here, albeit on metonymic and metaphorical terms. The wondrous creativity surge Pushkin experienced in the fall of 1830 in the village of Boldino is marked by an array of fake, hand-copied manuscript pages cascading onto a visitor from the top of a Niagara Falls-like vitrine. The story of the poet’s death is told by means of his quill pen, snatched off the desk of the deceased by a grieving friend, a medical chest of Dr. Arendt who treated the fatally wounded duelist, and a samovar formerly belonging to the Olenin family, whose house Pushkin frequented: they welded the spout shut after the poet had expired. Since it is hard to see how each object relates to who Pushkin was and what he wrote, hire a guide who will give you an inspired tour of the premises. Last time I popped in, a young woman was being instructed about the people whose portraits surrounded those of Pushkin’s parents. “They all are family friends,” the guide was saying soothingly. “Oh, and this man, too? Jean-Jacques Rousseau?” the lady asked, just to keep the conversation going.

When the abundance of historical—but not truly memorial objects tires you out—take the subway to Arbat (metro stop Smolenskaya). There, you will see the apartment Pushkin rented for four months in 1831, soon after marrying his angelical eighteen-year-old bride Natalia Goncharova, for whose honor he would eventually have to stand up and die. This Pushkin museum opened relatively recently, in 1999, and it is beautifully spare and uncluttered. Be the guest of the newlyweds, imagine them in that corner, where the sun has traced a warm amber circle on the parquet: his hand around her waist, her head on his shoulder. The empty rooms unfold before you, like a life that is carefree for now, full of promise. Move closer to the windows, look out onto one of the city’s most famous streets bustling with activity: flaneurs, chatty girlfriends in outdoor cafes, strumming musicians, an occasional bear on a chain pulled by an unscrupulous animal tamer. Arbat is flowing by like a river. Or, as its other dweller, Bulat Okudzhava, used to sing, it is always there like one’s “calling—joy and grief merging into one.”

You won’t be able to say that you have seen most of Moscow’s writers’ homes without paying a visit to the Turgenev Museum on Ostozhenka, the city’s most recent acquisition in the department of literary memorials. The house once belonged to Ivan Turgenev’s mother, Varvara Petrovna, the model for the disgusting landlady and serf-owner who forced her mute servant Gerasim to drown his only true friend, the plucky pooch Mumu. Known as a “House of Mumu,” the wooden mansion changed hands many times. After the post-1917 nationalization, it contained first a myriad of communal apartments and, later, a sports apparel company. It is no surprise that when Vladimir Putin came to re-open the renovated Moscow Turgenev Museum for the writer’s bicentennial, in November 2018, he kept marveling at the intactness of the house, rather than at the exhibits it contains (most of which are organized according to the “match and replace” principle). “Preserved in a wonderful way in the center of Moscow! This is an act of providence, a miracle! Thank God, we have this building and could start an exhibit here, establish a memorial,” Putin exclaimed. We don’t often hear him that excited, do we?

Putin is right: a miracle is what Russia often needed to save its cultural memory from destruction. In Moscow, it was delivered by Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, who happened to work with Tolstoy on relocating Russian non-Orthodox sectarians to Canada before becoming Lenin’s aide and one of the country’s first Communist bureaucrats. Initially interested in preserving Tolstoy’s legacy alone, in 1934, Bonch received the government’s blessing to set up a State Museum of Literature—the institution that would commemorate all the writers acceptable to the regime. Endowed with an unlimited supply of funds from the Council of People’s Commissars, he set out to buy dead and living authors’ manuscripts, correspondence, libraries, portraits and personal belongings, accumulating, in the course of six or seven years, an unprecedented collection of archival material. Hundreds of crates with papers and artwork, spread among several depositaries, were enough to supply a dozen writers’ homes with memorabilia. Bonch’s brainchild flourished; there were shows dedicated to Pushkin, Herzen, Nekrasov and revolutionary poets, a journal and an almanac, even traveling exhibitions sent out on demand to schools and collective farms. If anyone, only writers’ heirs had a reason to complain: they were often either forced to sell family papers or received insufficient payment for their treasures.

Moscow is a city of dead writers. No matter where you look, they are everywhere

Suspicious of any kind of miracle-workers, the atheist Soviet state eventually squelched Bonch’s fire and put other people at the literary altar he had erected with such zeal. In 1938, the NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria decided to rake up all archives under the guise of his own agency, the Soviet secret police. This was a gradual process, but by 1941, Bonch—lucky to stay alive—was relieved both of his collection and museum directorship. Nonetheless, the manuscripts he had gathered lay the foundation for the State Archive of Literature and the Arts, now a mecca for scholars, while the Museum of Literature ended up with twelve branches—some in Russia’s capital, and others in its provinces. If you wish to continue your tour of Moscow’s literary sites, try not to miss the Lermontov, Herzen, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Pasternak and Chukovsky memorial homes operating under its auspices, as well as museums dedicated to Alexei Tolstoy and Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Commissar of Education.

And isn’t it a peculiar twist of fate that the Khrushchev-Seleznev mansion on Prechistenka, which once housed the Moscow Toy Museum, was allocated to the museum of Vladimir Mayakovsky, “our everything” of the 1920s–1930s? Pushkin was given the quarters only later, which may be seen as an affront matching Mayakovsky’s and other Avant-Garde artists’ demand to throw him off “the steamship of modernity.” Meanwhile, the government, fond of toying with Russian lieux de memoire, decided that the populace should commemorate the Futurist in Lubyanka, the street where Mayakovsky shot himself but also the address of bloody NKVD headquarters. That literary memorial—propaganda posters, incendiary pro-Bolshevik verses—was the only one to stay in service in Moscow during the second world war, possibly due to the fact that Stalin himself had called Mayakovsky “the best, the most talented poet of our era.” In the 1989, however, the restored Mayakovsky museum in Lubyanka delivered a visual and narrative blow to the totalitarian aesthetics suffocating the country. Featuring a spiral installation in the center of a void-like exhibition hall, it led the visitors up to the summit of the poet’s career, his “boat-like” room, decorated with portraits of Velimir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Burliuk, Vsevolod Meyerhold and other literary and artistic non-conformists.

Acts of providence, miracles, dreams… In the late 1980s and early 1990s, previously banned writers, such as Marina Tsvetaeva and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, began their journey back to the Russian reader. Literary journals were finally allowed to print their little-known work, while publishers could produce mass market editions of the famous texts, such as volumes of poetry or The Gulag Archipelago, previously circulating only in tam and samizdat. New monuments and memorial plaques appeared: to Mandelstam, to Platonov, to Akhmatova. Now we can visit both Tsvetaeva’s last home in Moscow, a tiny villa tucked under the armpit of Borisoglebsky Lane (metro stop Arbatskaya), and the momentous “House of Russian Emigration,” also known as Solzhenitsyn Library, where émigré fiction and documentary prose, along with memoirs and correspondence of Russian intelligentsia living and dying in exile are now available to scholars and often put on display (metro stop Taganskaya). Both places offer bittersweet encounters with Russia’s most recent literary past—in Tsvetaeva’s home, for example, you will see a prettily decked out nursery of the poet’s two daughters, one of whom died of malnutrition at the age of three and another, spent fifteen years in a labor camp as a political prisoner. Do we take these memories back home with us or leave them? Do we wish to know the tragic side of Moscow’s literary past as well as its funny or charming aspect? Dead writers cannot answer this question. But they may continue to haunt those who prowl in their city, roam their streets and sneak in their habitats.


Olga Voronina

Olga Voronina is an associate professor of Russian at Bard College where she directs the Russian and Eurasian Program. She was deputy director of the Nabokov Museum in St Petersburg before being awarded a PhD in slavic languages and literature from Harvard University.

Dive deep into Russia’s capital city with reporting and commentary from some of Moscow’s best writers and photographers. This guide offers a fascinating look at the city, from its Soviet past to the current rule of Vladimir Putin. Hear rap battles, ...

Related Content