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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Inside Trifonov’s House on the Embankment
Text and photos Ian Mitchell

Moscow must have more fascinating but undervisited museums per square kilometer than any other city. They are fascinating often because they are small and specific. They are undervisited because of how they are presented — or, perhaps, “concealed” would be the better word. The museum inside the famous House on the Embankment [Dom na Naberezhnoi], or Government House, is a good example.

The house on the embankment under construction in 1930

This building across from the Kremlin is what Yuri Trifonov wrote about in his best-selling book about the Stalin purges. Having grown up in the house, the 12-year-old Trifonov returned from school one day to find his parents gone. They had been arrested, and he never saw them again. The event was not unusual during those years: From this house, which contains 505 flats, 766 individuals are known to have been arrested — and many of these shot — over the years of the repression. Some flats had four tenants in a single year. In this way, the House on the Embankment has become a symbol of the Terror and the terrible human price it exacted.

The museum stands inside one of the four courtyards without any sign in the street to tell the visitor how to find it, or even that it is there at all. A sign beside the otherwise unmarked door says it is open only four times a week for a few hours, but on later inquiry you learn that only two of these are for public visiting; the other two are for archival researchers only. And even if you do arrive during one of the six hours in the week when the museum is open, you will find the door locked.

Most people would retire at this stage, baffled by Russian marketing techniques. But if you find the bell and ring it, you will be invited inside by a friendly woman, who, when asked where you pay, says entry is free (unless you want to join a tour).

By accident, I discovered that a well-produced guide-cumhistory book about the building is on sale, though not displayed in any way so as to tempt the acquisitive visitor. Since they are hidden away in a cupboard, if you don’t know to ask for it, you will leave without a copy.

Olga Trifonova

Roosevelt’s radiogram gift to Stalin

In a display case inside, I noticed among the hundreds of books on the shelves a copy of a volume of reminiscences by Trifonov’s wife, Olga, about their life and times together. I surreptitiously pulled it out and saw that it was published in 2003. Presuming, therefore, that it was still in print, I made bold to ask where I could obtain a copy. Right here, was the answer, for 150 rubles. In another cupboard was a large stock of them; once again, completely concealed from the visiting public.

When I asked permission to take photographs to accompany an article I was writing about the museum, I was directed to the administration. The director turned out to be a handsome woman in late middle age, who gave me permission without question. Then she gave me a free private tour of the museum.

I told her I knew that Trifonov had passed away in 1981 but that I had read on the Internet that the widow of the great writer still lived in the building, though apparently she was very elderly. Was this true?

“No, it is not!” she said emphatically. “I am his widow! I am Olga Trifonova.”

I couldn’t believe my ears, or eyes. This was no elderly lady but a sprightly woman, who was happy to pose for a photo and later to sign my copy of her oddly marketed book.

“And I have never lived in this building,” she went on. “My husband wouldn’t either because of the memories it held for him. He called it a godforsaken place.”

It would not be in the spirit of the place for me to disclose any information about this fascinating museum, like when it is open or how to get there. But if you do succeed in locating it, please ask Olga for a copy of her book as it contains a lot of fascinating information and many pictures. If you really press, she will tell you about the museum’s web site, the repository of all information otherwise unavailable.

Though I intend to keep her secrets, I cannot resist tempting the reader with the fact that he or she can see the actual radiogram that President Franklin Roosevelt presented to Joseph Stalin during World War II as a thank you for the efforts of those below him in defeating Nazism. (It was stolen from Stalin’s Kuntsevo dacha after his death in 1953.)

The house on the embankment today

I would like to have known if the old 78s in the record drawer at the side were those Stalin listened to himself as he forced his immediate underlings to get blubbering drunk around the dining table at 4 a.m. and disgrace themselves by, for example, dancing the gopak. Nikita Khrushchev, who even then was very overweight, said in his memoirs, “I hated these sessions. I dance like a cow on ice. But when Stalin says, ‘Dance!’ a wise man dances.”

The House on the Embankment Museum
Wednesday 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Saturday 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

How to get there:
From the Kropotkinskaya metro station, go behind the Christ the Redeemer Cathedral and over the bridge to the other side of the river. Follow the embankment east toward the Kremlin (which is on the opposite side) for 100 yards. At a large gray building on the right, take the second small entrance into a courtyard (just past the theater). The museum entrance will be on your left almost immediately, up a very short flight of steps.



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