Selling the House Where Tolstoy Lived

The Moscow Times
Friday, Mar. 26, 2004. Page 1

Selling the House Where Tolstoy Lived

By Kevin O’Flynn
Staff Writer

Mike Solovyanov / MT

Two of Alexei Tolstoy’s writing desks, standing as they did in his study at
2 Ulitsa Spiridonovka, where he lived from 1941 to 1945.

The museum dedicated to Alexei Tolstoy, one of the Soviet Union’s most
famous writers and a distant relative of 19th-century novelist Leo Tolstoy,
came under threat Thursday as it was discovered that the house in which it
stands, one of Moscow’s finest art nouveau buildings, has been sold to a
construction company.

Occupying the rooms at 2 Ulitsa Spiridonovka in the heart of old Moscow,
where Tolstoy lived from 1941 until his death four years later, the museum
is in the grounds of Ryabushinsky House, the home of the more well-known
Gorky Museum.

The house, named after Stepan Ryabushinsky, a rich merchant who fled Russia
after the 1917 revolution, is in one of Moscow’s most prestigious locations,
between Pushkin Square and Stary Arbat.

Turning up for work Thursday, museum workers were shocked to read a letter
telling them the museum was no longer responsible for paying its communal

Quite to the workers’ surprise, it turned out that the building had been
sold to construction company Evro- Stroi on Dec. 30.

Evro-Stroi’s general director, who would only identify himself by his last
name, Simonyan, said the building’s previous owner, a charitable fund called
The Society for the Support of the Arts, had bought the building from the
Moscow city government.

The museum and its supporters have decried the deal, saying that it is
illegal and simply a real estate grab.

But Simonyan said the sale was legal and that Evro-Stroi had no plans to
harm the museum. It just wanted to carry out some repairs and use part of
the building as an office, he said.

“Have you seen the ceiling, the walls, the roof?” he said. “They are in
complete disrepair.”

But Simonyan also said the museum did not need the 300-plus square meters it
now occupies, as Tolstoy’s apartment was only 80 square meters when he lived

“We appreciate culture,” he said.

The State Literature Museum, which is in charge of the Tolstoy museum,
called the purchase “criminal,” saying it would fight the purchase in the
courts. The Moscow city government has set up a commission to examine how
the building was sold.

Mike Solovyanov / MT

The entrance to the Tolstoy museum is around the corner from Ulitsa
Spiridonovka, in part of what was the Ryabushinsky estate.

Museum workers were in shock Thursday as the news spread through the city’s
literary community, fielding phone calls and visits from outraged Muscovites
coming to show support.

“Everyone is worried,” said museum director Inna Andreyeva, who has worked
at the museum since it opened in 1987.

Alexei Tolstoy came to live on Spiridonovka after he became one of the
Soviet Union’s establishment writers under Stalin. He had left Russia after
the 1917 Revolution, but returned in 1923.

Tolstoy’s serious novels, such as “Peter I” and “The Road to Calvary,” are
less read now. But his children’s novels, particularly “The Adventures of
Buratino,” a Russian version of the Pinocchio tale, remain very popular.

Tolstoy’s reputation dimmed in recent years, amid accusations that he was an
apologist for Stalin’s regime. But the family’s literary tradition has been
continued by his granddaughter, Tatyana Tolstaya, also a novelist.

Tolstoy’s wife lived on in the house until her death in 1982, keeping it
much as it was when the writer died, complete with its valuable collection
of paintings and antique furniture intact.

In the museum, Tolstoy’s study has his writing desks kept as they were. The
writer always used all four desks when working, switching from one to
another as he researched his stories, typed them up on a classic Underwood
typewriter, and checked his manuscripts.

The museum also has a small but valuable art collection, including a work by
Karl Bryullov, the artist most famous for his “Last Day of Pompeii,” which
hangs in the Russian Museum.

The building is not just important as a museum, but “as a cultural center
which is alive,” Andreyeva said, listing the concerts, lectures and other
events that take place at the museum, such as the concert of chamber music
and reading of Spanish poetry in translation planned for Sunday evening.

Solovyanov / MT

Since opening in 1987, the museum has hosted many literary and musical

The museum is in a corner of Moscow that is very special for Russian
writers, Andreyeva said, pointing out Maxim Gorky’s house next door and the
church a few meters away where Alexander Pushkin got married.

Other famous literary residents nearby included Alexander Blok, who lived on
the street when he first came to Moscow, and Ivan Bunin, who used to stay up
all night playing cards at his friends’ a bit further down the road.

In another part of the grounds, nearer to Malaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa, is the
Gorky apartment museum, where Gorky lived from 1931 until his death in
mysterious circumstances in 1936.

Reactions Thursday to the sale from the literary community ranged from anger
to resignation.

“Some con merchants, some bandits bought the building behind our backs,”
said Natalya Shakhalova, the director of the State Literature Museum.

As a national culture and architecture monument, it cannot be sold without
the permission of the federal government, she said.

Other museum workers, including the worried head of the Chekhov apartment
museum, phoned during the day to offer their solidarity.

And despite the assurances of the new landlord, museum workers and many
Muscovites fear for the fate of the building and the museum. Hundreds of
historical buildings, many supposedly protected by the state, have been
knocked down over the last decade.

One customer brought three flowers, saying that she hoped that it wouldn’t
be two the next time. Russians give an even number of flowers only at

“It shows that the people in charge of Moscow couldn’t care less. Look what
they have done to Moscow,” said one visitor, trying out the antique
Chippendale wooden chair in the staff room at the museum, who did not want
to give his name. “They have destroyed the Arbat, Ostozhenka and
Prechistenka. Now they’ve gotten to Spiridonovka.”

But Evro-Stroi insists it has no plans to do any work on the building this

Kommersant quoted the head of the commission investigating the sale,
Vladimir Avekov, as saying that it was unclear which part of building had
been sold. He said he believed the sale affected 450 square meters out of
the building’s total area of 800 square meters.

Avekov said the charity that bought the building first had been founded in
1999, and that one of its backers was the State Literature Museum.

“It seems as if they sold it to themselves,” the paper reported Avekov as

But Shakhalova denied Thursday that the State Literature Museum was a
founder of the fund.