Ranevskaya's letter and Ilyusha the penguin. Five surprising Moscow museum exhibits

Ranevskaya's letter and Ilyusha the penguin. Five surprising Moscow museum exhibits
Stuffed penguin at the House on the Embankment and Faina Ranevskaya's letter at the Museum of Cosmonautics. History of unusual exhibits at Moscow museums.

When planning a visit to a Museum, we expect to see some particular exhibits. Works by a surrealist sculptor Alexander Burganov at the Dom Burganova Museum, paintings telling cheerful stories at the Museum of Russian Lubok and Naïve Art. But in fact, even at a familiar museum, you may come across something unexpected. Five seemingly weird exhibits in mos.ru and the Mosgortur Agency’s collaborative article.

A visitor from Antarctica

Ilyusha the king penguin meets the guests at the entrance of the House on the Embankment Museum. This stuffed animal was donated to the Museum by the family of Ilya Mazuruk, a polar pilot, the Hero of the Soviet Union. In 1956, he participated in a high-latitude expedition to Antarctica and brought some king penguins to the Moscow Zoo. Mazuruk kept one penguin for himself and even gave it a name. 

The legendary life of Ilyusha in Soviet Moscow at Bersenevskaya Embankment was much talked about. Some old-timers claim to have personally seen Mazuruk walking his penguin. Ilyusha was regularly taken to the country house with a special pool for the penguin. We do not know exactly the penguin's life span in urban environments, and how old it was when it was brought to Moscow. Immediately after its death, Ilya Mazuruk ordered to stuff it and put it in the pilot's office.

Grant-charters issued by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great

The Alexander Solzhenitsyn House of Russia Abroad has some unusual exhibits ― Peter the Great's grant-charter issued to Fyodor Korbe certifying his title to lands in Little Russia, dated 1719, and a grant-charter issued by Catherine the Great in 1765 to the son and descendants of Fyodor Korbe certifying their title to lands in Little Russia.

Fyodor Korbe was a translator at the Kievan Provincial Chancery. For his diligent service, the Emperor granted him title to Krupol and Lukyanovka villages of Pereyaslavsky regiment. His son Mikhail, also a Kievan Chancery employee, received one more grant-charter from Catherine the Great.  The document secured the title to the areas granted to his father by Peter the Great for him and his descendants.

These exhibits seem unusual for the House of Russia Abroad only at first glance. Both grant-charters were donated to the Museum by the grantees’ descendant Vladimir Korbe, who had emigrated with his family during the revolution and had been living abroad, mainly in the United States, all his life.

Head of Antoninus Pius

The Dom Burganova Museum, in addition to surreal sculptures, features 46 exhibits dating back to 1200-100 BC, including a marble head of a goddess made in Greece around 350 BC, fragmented sculpture without arms, legs and head, that looks like Nike, a winged Greek goddess of victory (around 100 BC), a marble head of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, around 150 AD.

All these items had been stored in private German collections before they were included in the Berlin antique collection, most of its exhibits were destroyed or lost during WWII. In 1946, the surviving monuments of culture were transported to the USSR and distributed among museums. Some of them got into the Stroganov School. In 2001, the antiquities were transferred to the Dom Burganova Museum.

Faina Ranevskaya's letter

There was a long-term friendship between most the number-one comedy actress of the Soviet cinema and theatre Faina Ranevskaya and the journalist and writer Tatiana Tess. They used to write half-joking letters to each other. Ranevskaya wrote letters on behalf of a fictitious admirer of Tess's talent, a provincialist Kafinkin, and mostly ridiculed bravura newspaper articles of her friend. But on 29 March 1968, two days after Yuri Gagarin's death, she wrote Tess an absolutely serious and very bitter letter, currently exhibited at the Museum of Cosmonautics. Each line of this letter manifests not just regret about the departed hero, but true grief of loss.

"Yesterday I had to perform some scenes in Somov play, but I could only think about Gagarin's death. I was so confused and unhappy on my return home that I started to drink vodka, all by myself, like never before. <...> Grief and anger torment me, he was so great to talk to, so modest, and even shy. I have become immortal due to the fact that we once hugged and kissed, and then I saw it in a film."

Ranevskaya met with Gagarin at the Actor House in the early 1960s. The film the actress writes about is a documentary 'Yuri Gagarin! Seven Years of Loneliness' shot during that meeting.

Not a naïve migraine

The term 'naïve art' confuses many people. When they come to the museum, they expects to see idyllic scenes depicting life pleasures or 'cosy' pictures with kittens and flowers. Naïve art is considered to be an easy-to-understand genre, but it is not quite true, because this art is much more complicated.

An example of a sad naïve art, unexpected for a positive-minded visitor, is presented in the permanent exhibition of the Museum of Russian Lubok and Naïve Art. The wooden high relief by Boris Pravdin depicts a man suffering from migraine. Like ancient masters, the artist employed conventionality with no precise details to create a symbol of suffering anyone will understand.