The Alexander Blok Museum
Text and photos Ian Mitchell
The English writer Maurice Baring once said of Russian poetry: “It appears to me impossible to describe … [it] if one is forced to deal in translations, since no translation, however good, can give the reader an idea either of the music, the atmosphere or the charm of the original … But it is in Russian poetry that the quality of Russian realism is perhaps most clearly made manifest … it clings to the solid earth.”
For those of us, like myself, who are not native speakers of Russian, it is perhaps best to approach Russian poetry through the environment in which some of it was made. That was my thought as I sped on my bicycle down a long hill, between solid earth banks on which grew a thick wall of birches, pines, limes, and firs, on the 2-kilometer run between the tiny village of Tarakanovo and the settlement of Shakhmatovo, where Alexander Blok lived. Given the natural beauty of the area, it is not hard to understand why Blok chose it for his summer residence.
The poet Alexander Blok was born in 1880 into a highly cultivated family in St. Petersburg. His father was a law professor in Warsaw, and his maternal grandfather, a botanist and the rector of St. Petersburg University, was close friends with the great scientist Dmitri Mendeleev (the inventor/discoverer of the periodic table of elements). It was Mendeleev who persuaded Blok’s family to buy the small estate at Shakhmatovo in 1874, and it was Mendeleev’s daughter, Lyubov, whom Blok married in Tarakanovo in 1903.
Blok wrote what many critics consider to be among the most powerful Russian love poems in the cycle he called Verses about a Beautiful Lady (1904). But already he was beginning to sense the shadows that were falling across Russia and that would eventually tear him away forever from Shakhmatovo, which he once described as a piece of Russian heaven. In 1908, at the time when his stature as a poet was being compared with Pushkin’s, Blok wrote: “Whether we remember or forget, in all of us sit sensations of malaise, fear, catastrophe, explosion. We do not yet know precisely what events await us, but in our hearts the needle of the seismograph has already stirred.”
When revolution came, Blok initially embraced it, writing The Twelve, a long poem in which Bolshevik soldiers are implicitly compared with the Disciples of Christ. But the Bolsheviks did not return the compliment, scorning Blok’s poetry as being dandified, in poor taste, and, in its natural lyricism, not proletarian enough. Long separated from the support of Lyubov, the sensitive poet descended into despair, not least when he was evicted from his beloved house at Shakhmatovo. In 1921, at the age of 40, he died, apparently of tuberculosis but possibly also of a broken heart.
According to the well-informed guides at the Blok Museum at Shakhmatovo, following Blok’s death, the house fell into disrepair. The peasants living on the estate plundered the wooden structure for fuel and, to conceal their theft, burned what was left to the ground.
That is how things stood when Kathleen Berton Murrell visited the place while writing her book Discovering the Moscow Countryside. The 2001 guide warns that all you will be able to see on the site is “a small hill with a white marble stone and a plaque stating that Blok lived here 1881-1916.”
Today, however, this is no longer the case. In the late 1990s, the Ministry of Culture of Moscow region acquired the estate and began an extensive program, still unfi nished, of restoring not just the house, but the out-buildings, the gardens, the ponds, and the surrounding woods. Reconstructed from photographs on the original foundations that were unearthed in the woods, the main house is as Blok lived in it after a full remont [renovation] in 1910. The work has been beautifully done, with much of the furnishings brought either from Blok’s apartment in Petersburg or acquired from families in the area. I was shown an elegant, oval occasional table, in veneered mahogany, which was acquired by the museum for 20 rubles! (I offered the guide 30 for it, but she only laughed.) There is also a piano on which, Rachmaninoff — another friend — played. Blok’s library and study are as they were when he used them.
Outside, the gardens are beautifully maintained, and the museum has made walkways in the woods, which alone make a visit to Shakhmatovo highly recommended. The museum offers two guidebooks (in Russian only) for sale, one about Blok and one about the estate.
There is a festival in the grounds each year on August 7, the anniversary of Blok’s death, when contemporary poets gather to read the work of one of the Russian masters.
HOW TO GET THERE
Drive or cycle north from Solnechnogorsk (on the Leningrad highway, two-thirds of the way to Klin) toward Tarakanovo, 18 kilometers away. At the crossroads in Tarakanovo (there is only one), turn right, and follow the road down through the woods for 2 kilometers, turning right at the end, where you will not be able to miss the estate on the hill in the woods. The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday, 10 to 17. Admission is 60 rubles.