Nearly 300 years ago, Peter the Great granted Grigory Stroganov an exceptionally nice bit of land south of Moscow in return for equipping the army and navy. He even came and stayed for a while, and an oak was planted in his honor. Eventually, the house was transformed into a palace and the surrounding land into a superb park open to anyone who wanted to go and wander around it. It was known as Kuzminki and also as Vlakhernskoye, after the miracle-working icon of the Virgin Mary that was placed in the stone baroque church near the main gates in 1761.
Next year, in 2002, anybody who is in any way connected with the estate intends to make the celebrations for its tercentenary year not only memorable but also productive. Kuzminki, like all the old aristocratic estates in and around Moscow, could do with a lot of salvaging.
Kuzminki is luckier than most in that it was brought to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's attention, primarily thanks to the fact that the newly established little museum on the estate is an annex of the Moscow Museum on Novaya Ploshchad. After that, landscape gardeners were called in and, lo and behold, the park, now covered in grass around the lake and in front of the palace, has begun to resemble its former glory. The transformation, rightly called a festival of flowers, perhaps more than anything else reassures those who love Kuzminki that rescue is more than just a dream.
Restoration work has in fact already started. The Music Pavilion, with its two statues of grooms and horses on the far side of the lake, is under scaffolding and the log cabin by the dam now only needs interior decorating. The church is functioning and everything from the outside makes the estate look as if it is being cared for.
The big issue is the palace or what used to be the palace. Overwhelmed by trees and undergrowth and enclosed at the front by a wall on which repose bronze female lions, the barely visible building seemed to be deserted and neglected. Set far back in the garden is a statue of a man striding purposefully toward the iron gates with their four groups of bronze griffins supporting lamps. It didn't look like any of the Prince Golitsyns who had owned the estate but it did look suspiciously like Lenin. Somebody on the estate confirmed that, yes, it was Lenin.
"Who took over the big house?" I asked. "The Academy of Veterinary Medicine," the young woman helpfully replied. I pressed on: "How long ago was it closed down?" "Ask them," she said, her helpfulness running out.
Round to the left I found a large notice on which was written "Cat and Dog Hospital." Concealed by bushes was a building in a state of advanced dilapidation on the steps of which a mangy-looking Alsation sat looking at me serenely. Above him was another notice: "The All-Russian Experimental Scientific Research Veterinary Institute." Experimenting on animals and humans in the field of medicine has never been a strong point with me other than causing the reaction of ferociously opposing it but, as the Alsation wasn't bothered, I went off to investigate the museum and the back of the palace.
The museum has been modernized. A big plus is that it has had heating installed, although this has not prevented one wall from being stricken with damp. Filled with interesting prints and portraits depicting the palace and members of the Golitsyn family who acquired the estate as dowry when Prince Mikhail Golitsyn married Anna Stroganova in 1757, its five rooms also display furniture and objets d'art of the period. In its day up until the end of the 19th century the palace was famous for its literary and musical salons, not to mention its society balls and the innumerable carriages rolling up to the gates with illustrious guests who were often members of the royal family.
"When will the palace be re-opened to the public?" I ingenuously asked one of the many lady pensioners in charge. She confidently assured me it would be in time for the tercentenary. Becoming more enthusiastic by the minute about such a fortunate turn in events, my friend asked whether she could take some photos of the exhibits. This necessitated an outlay of a further 25 rubles for 10 pictures strictly only two in each room. The business turned into a Gogolian farce. There were some rooms she didn't want to be photographed. They compromised: "But in all no more than 10 photographs." Pursued by ladies frantically counting the number taken in two rooms, finally haggling over whether it had been six or seven, my friend gave up. She would buy another ticket, she said. Deep silence! They hadn't thought of that. Anyway, she didn't. At the door, as she was leaving, she said: "There are still three photographs left." Perhaps they hadn't bargained on that either.
We found what had once been a path at the back of the palace. Tramping through the nettles and trying not to get stung, we succeeded in getting much closer to the building. Not a sign of life. Not a single scaffold or anything that indicated the presence of builders. Just a very forlorn-looking building that looks as if it was once occupied by representatives of the lumpen proletariat.
On the other side of the lake we trailed around what had once upon a time been a magnificent horse courtyard. In the center of the ensemble stands the scaffolded Music Pavilion. It is an interesting combination and we were instantly fascinated. But, as far as we could see, nothing is being resurrected in the interests of equestrianism. Nearby, two Russian lady visitors suggest that the estate would be privatized. "That's why all this is going on," they say, pointing to the many summer cafes and the floating restaurant, hired, at that precise moment, by a wedding party. They were convinced the horse courtyard is in the process of being restored. We were too polite to say that was not our impression at all.
What we did think was that, if Mayor Luzhkov does not send in teams of builders pretty soon, there are going to be a lot of very disillusioned people.
Kuzminki Museum Estate
6 Topolevaya Alleya.
Metro: Ryazansky Prospekt.
Tel: 377-9457, 376-7610.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sat., Sun. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Cover: 20 rubles.