I set out to find traces of my literary heroes in the streets of Moscow. First stop, near Park Kultury, is Tolstoy’ town house, turned museum on Lenin’s orders in 1921.
This attractive wooden house has changed little since the Tolstoy family spent their winters here between 1829 and 1910. Summers were spent on Tolstoy’s ancestral estate at Yasnaya Polyana.
In the hallway hangs Tolstoy’s fur-edged coat.
I climb the stairs under the watchful eyes of a stuffed bear – one of Tolstoy’s hunting trophies perhaps.
Here, in the salon, stands a bust of Tolstoy straining to hear the notes of the grand piano once played by Rachmaninov, Rimsky Korsakov and Shalyapin.
I move into the bedroom decorated by Sophia Tolstaya. On the wall hangs a reproduction of Repin’s portrait of Sophia, Tolstoy’s long-suffering wife. There is a tidy desk where she painstakingly wrote out Tolstoy’s manuscripts. The order of the house belies Sophia’s stormy relationship with her husband as he retreated from the world, living as simply as possible. It was the death of their youngest son, Vanya, at the age of six from scarlet fever, that brought about the couple’s brief rapprochement. In Vanya’s bedroom the reigns of his rocking horse lie limp. The high chair is empty. Only the child’s drawings suggest an active life. Nine of the 13 Tolstoy children survived.
But it is in Tolstoy’s study, overlooking the garden, that my heart misses a beat. Is this where he wrote of Anna Karenina’s affair with Count Vronsky and her increasing paranoia about his imagined infidelity? Is this where he wrote, in War and Peace, about the effect on five aristocratic families of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia? Both of Tolstoy’s most famous novels were set in Moscow. Amusingly he sawed off the legs of his desk chair to be nearer to his script. He wanted no one to know of his increasing short-sightedness.
I take the path to church of St Nicolas of the Weavers, built in 1679, that Tolstoy and his family attended until the writer’s rift with the church. The vivid green and orange gables, topped with five golden domes, are a cheerful sight.
Inside the atmosphere is more somber. Women, their heads covered, write the names of the living and the dead for the priest to include in his payers. They shuffle across the floor, light candles and remove dripping wax.
Some pray to the glittering gold iconostasis of St Nicolas. Others pray to the Virgin of Sinners reputed to perform miracles. There is no seating in this church. Believers must stand no matter how long the priest takes to appease God or his followers.
I take the train from Park Kultury to Biblioteka Imeni Lenina. The statue of Dostoyevsky, born in Moscow, is majestic against the portico and square black pillars of the Russian State Library. I walk along to Nikitinsky bulvar, where, at number 6, Nikolai Gogol spent his last months. I am ushered into room after room by a bent back woman of a certain age. She closes the door behind her so I can appreciate the sight and sound of each installation. Horses trot over cobbles. Church bells ring. There is a swashbuckling and clash of swords. It is confusing but intriguing too.
In the sitting room ghostly figures appear above the fireplace lit up with a burning, crackling, manuscript. I need no interpreter to tell me that the burning embers are the remains of the second volume of Dead Souls, Gogol’s runaway classic. It tells the story of Chichikov who attempts to buy and sell dead serfs or Dead Souls as part of a money making scam. Perhaps one of the ghostly figures who appear above the fireplace is the religious fanatic under whose influence Gogol fell in his last tortured months and who led him to destroy his final words.
At the end of the tour my companion ushers me into a dark barren hallway where she introduces me to Gogol’s bust.
With a certain mania in her eyes she points to the eerie shadow cast by the statue, suggesting Gogol’s troubled soul still haunts this house.
I proceed along Nikitinsky bulvar until I reach the ITAR-TASS state news agency and mouthpiece of the Communist Party during Soviet times.
I look towards the Church of the Great Ascension where Pushkin married Natalya Gonchorova in 1831. Opposite is the Alexei Tolstoy and Gorky House Museum. This 1906 art nouveau mansion was designed by Fyodor Shehktel and gifted to the writer, Maxim Gorky in 1931.
Another woman of a certain age, but more straight backed, adopts me.
“We are under the sea,” she explains.
My guide points to what might be a coral shelf on the ceiling, to the underwater plants in the stained glass in the entrance hall
and to the enormous lamp at the base of the magnificent stair balustrade.
“ It is a jellyfish inside an octopus inside an…”
Her English, taught by a diplomat’s wife, fails her.
As I walk up the stairs hissing snakes untangle themselves from plants wound around the pillars.
A pertinent reminder, perhaps, of the poison that set in after the honeymoon period between Stalin and Gorky, and the latter’s initial support of the Soviet regime.
As I leave my guide points to three telephones in the study where Gorky’s son edited his father’s work.
“One for the house, one for Moscow and one for the Kremlin.”
I wonder at what point the conversations on the phone line, between Gorky and the Kremilin, became more barbed. Cut off perhaps.
I walk up Tverskoy bulvar. It is Moscow Day and Muscovites are out enjoying themselves. They shop at the attractive wooden kiosksand pose for photographs.
At the base of the statue of Sergey Yesenin people are having tea served from a huge urn and eating pancakes cooked on an open grill. They are not paying much attention to the Symbolist poet, best known for Pugachev, a verse tragedy dealing with the peasant rebellion of 1773 – 75. His was a sad life. He killed himself in 1925 after separating from his wife, Isodora Duncan. At least it is said he killed himself. Yet another death in Russia in mysterious circumstances.
I head towards Pushkin Square where a statue of the most popular of all Russian authors is also being ignored. A pop concert is in full swing.
Eugene Onegin, ridiculing the foppish aristocratic society of Imperial Russia, is thought to be Pushkin’s masterpiece.
I walk further along Tverskaya until I meet Mayakovsky.
He stands erect against the backdrop of one of Stalin’s seven sisters, large scrapers whose foundations were laid in 1947 to mark Moscow’s 800th anniversary. Mayakovsky was a futurist poet, a social activist and active propagandist for the new regime. He was also one of the few writers allowed to travel abroad during Stalin’s crackdown. Stalin thought indifference to his work was a crime.
Yet Mayakovsky too became disillusioned, “She did devour me lousy, snuffling dear, Mother Russia, like a sow devouring her piglet. “
Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930.At the time of his death the room adjoining Mayakovsky’s was occupied by a KGB agent.
Just down the road are two museums devoted to Bulgakov who wrote many plays performed at the Moscow Art Theatre including an adaptation of Gogol’s Dead Souls. At first the plays were enjoyed by Stalin but later banned and Bulgakov had difficulty finding work.
I walk into a cluster of rooms of Bulgakov memorabalia.
A head lies on a railway line under a train carriage and a bare breasted women rides a flying pig carrying a briefcase in his snout.
There are posters of Bulgakov’s theatre performances– a deck of cards held in a claw, Adam and Eve wearing gas masks.
But there is no friendly woman of a certain age to show me round. I feel ill at ease in this gathering place for Bulgakov devotees and Moscow-based Satanist groups. As I leave, a black cat leaps from the shadows. It must be Behemoth, from Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, the demonic black cat who speaks, walks on two legs and has a penchant for chess, vodka, pistols and sarcasm. Not far away is Patriarch’s Pond, the setting for the opening of Master and Margarita but dusk is falling. Best to get back to my hotel and curl up with one of my Russian literary heroes. But which one?