Moscow Museums: Further From the Beaten Path
Text Ray Nayler
Photos Anna Kuznetsova and Ray Nayle
Moscow’s scientists and educators sought to catalog everything in the world — or at least everything within the bounds of the Soviet world along with the great works and discoveries of the West. The Tretaykov Gallery, a world-famous destination for art lovers, and the must-see museums of the Moscow Kremlin illustrate this point. But looking beyond these and other ultra-popular museums on the tour-bus route, it becomes clear that Moscow has plenty of less standard museum offerings for the curious. Like everything else in this city, it just requires digging a little deeper. As examples, we have selected four Moscow museums that are less famous but equally worth a visit, from the elegant to the strange, the artistic to the scientific.
In traditional Soviet style, the Gorky Museum presents the writer as a man of the people and friend to the Bolsheviks, gliding over his victimization by the Bolshevik government and by Stalin. Nevertheless, dark wood and twisting details of the curtained interior throw a ghostly light on the exhibits of Gorky’s possessions. Unlike many of the house-museums dotting Moscow, this one, which belonged to Gorky’s family and was donated to the state decades later, preserved much of Gorky’s furniture and collections intact. It is as if Gorky has been whisked away in a black Volga for some political instruction and will soon return to resume his interrupted work.
Because of his strong personal and political convictions — Gorky was an early member of the Marxist Social Democrats and a supporter of the Bolsheviks during the revolutions of 1917 — the writer spent large segments of his life in exile, both under the tsarist and the Communist regimes. A staunch believer in free speech and democracy who spoke out against what he saw as the Revolution’s abuse of human rights, as early as 1919 Gorky became the target of threats from Lenin. In 1921, a disillusioned and alienated Gorky left Soviet Russia after failing to prevent the politically motivated execution of the Acmeist poet Nikolai Gumilyov, a close friend of Gorky’s and the husband of poet Anna Akhmatova.
However, Gorky inexplicably returned to the Soviet Union in 1931 at Stalin’s behest and began to write positively about the Soviet government. Placed under house arrest in 1934 as Stalin’s purges began to escalate, it was a mansion on Malaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa that served as Gorky’s house-prison until June 1936, when the writer died under mysterious circumstances.
The museum is housed in the Art Nouveau Ryabushinsky Mansion, an architectural monument in itself. Built in 1900 for the Moscow banker Pavel Ryabushinsky and designed by Russian architect Fyodor Shekhtel with stunning internal and external attention to detail, the building is a perfect emblem of fin-de-siecle Russian elegance, and one of the city’s greatest and best-preserved examples of the Moderne style. It is a strange piece of irony that Gorky, hero of the common man, would come to his end in the ornate mansion built by a wealthy capitalist family.
Another shrine to a great revolutionary writer is the Mayakovsky Museum, which occupies a large portion of the building in which the Futurist poet lived from 1919 to 1930 in a single room in a communal apartment. The room survives just as it was when Vladimir Mayakovsky lived — and died — there, but the rest of the museum is an explosion of angular lines, swirling metal structures, and maze-like rooms connected by breezeways that leave you guessing what floor you are on. The experimental design of the museum, lovingly created by a group of Russian artists and opened in 1989, is a physical testament to the nonconformity of Mayakovsky himself, the “raging bull” of Soviet poetry, poster art, and Futurist theory.
Like Gorky, Mayakovsky is a writer who became disillusioned with the increasingly censorial and autocratic Soviet regime during the 1920s. His tumultuous and tragic life is representative of many of the young, enthusiastic artists who later ran afoul of the state. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who chose an apolitical stance, Mayakovsky aggressively agitated for the regime in its early days: first as a revolutionary in Kutaisi, later in St. Petersburg as a Soviet agitator, and then in Moscow producing agitprop posters as an employee of the Russian State Telegraph Agency. Later works of Mayakovsky, such as the plays The Bedbug and The Bathhouse, display an increasing frustration with the Soviet regime’s bureaucracy and philistinism. As befits this furiously egotistical poet, the museum is a fluid and kaleidoscopic monument to a single man and seems to change with every viewing. The exhibits catalogue the intricacies of Mayakovsky’s life, his rise to prominence, his love affairs, his fall from grace, and his suicide (or political assassination, as some theorize).
In contrast to the abstract artistic and political theory of the Mayakovsky Museum, the Museum of Water examines the concrete, day-to-day task of urban water supply. The tiny but fascinating exhibit records the history of water delivery to Moscow, from the initial tower-wells in the Kremlin to the development of a sewage system in the growing city to the water-purification plants, massive engineering designs, and sewage disposal methods of the modern megalopolis. The museum will put to rest a number of questions, from “Is it safe to drink water from the tap in Moscow?” to “Where does all the poop go?”
The museum leads daily excursions for students, and they are booked well in advance (the museum, which is more popular than you might think, is open only on weekdays). However, it is easy to join an already existing excursion, or simply ask permission from the enthusiastic staff to wander the fascinating exhibits, which include a number of retro light-up panels and diagrams as well as pipe-cleaning robots, building materials made from human waste byproducts, one of the oldest wooden pipes recovered in Moscow, and all sorts of dioramas of processing plants and machinery.
It’s tempting to say that the Orlov Paleontology Museum is for kids, but the fact is, everyone is fascinated by dinosaurs — we adults just learn to conceal our glee more effectively. However, the museum is more than just a building full of bones: It is a piece of monumental architecture and a gorgeous example of how architecture, art, and science can merge to form a harmonious whole. From the fence outside the museum with its dinosaur designs to the monumental ceramic mosaic-sculptures that adorn the walls inside illustrating evolution, ancient sea life, and the complexities of nature’s design, the museum is a work of art in itself. Still more impressive is the collection itself, one of the most extensive in the world — a panorama of the development of life on Earth from the earliest organisms to Ice Age mammoths and modern man himself. The museum is child-friendly, with paper and colored pencils available so young visitors can record their impressions. For adults, the amount of information is somewhat overwhelming: The development of life is comprehensively covered in dense scientific Russian so it is a good opportunity to brush up on your Russian terminology. Alternatively, you can avoid all that reading and just admire the plethora of fossilized vestiges of the prehistoric and strange.
6/2 Malaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa, M. Arbatskaya
Wednesday and Friday 12:00 pm –7:00 pm; Thursday, Saturday, Sunday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm.
Closed last Friday of the month
State Mayakovsky Museum
3/6 Lubyansky Proyezd, M. Lubyanka, Kitai-Gorod
Monday, Tuesday, and Friday through Sunday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm; Thursday 1:00 pm – 8:00 pm.
13 Sarinsky Proyezd, M. Proletarskaya
Monday through Friday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Orlov Paleontology Museum
123 Profsoyuznaya Ulitsa, M. Tyoply Stan
Wednesday through Sunday 11:00 am – 6:00 pm