Nabokov's jacket and Solzhenitsyn's coat. Guide to the updated exhibition of the Museum of Russia Abroad

Nabokov's jacket and Solzhenitsyn's coat. Guide to the updated exhibition of the Museum of Russia Abroad
We will research the 20th century through rarities and multimedia, find a Russian trace in the history of Paraguay and the Philippines, read books by immigrant writers and take a look at their belongings.

The Museum of Russia Abroad is one of the new Moscow's museums. It opened at the Solzhenitsyn House of Russia Abroad in late May. A permanent exhibition on two floors of the new four-storey building in Taganka is about the history of Russian emigration, the first wave of which was caused by the Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War that followed.

Every third Sunday of the month, you may visit the Museum of Russia Abroad for free. Free Museum week, which started on 12 August, is a great opportunity to visit it if you have not done it yet.

This collaborative article by mos.ru and Mosgortur Agency will tell you about how the Museum works and some stories about its exhibits

Museum in digital

For one thing, you should come to 2 Nizhnyaya Radishchevskaya Street to see what a historical Museum looks like in the digital age. Advanced technology, with its 54 multimedia screens displaying over 2,000 digitised photos, documents, manuscripts and printed publications, takes visitors back in time to the revolutionary Petrograd or one of the European capitals of the 1920s. There are motion sensors installed in the Museum's halls, so as soon as you approach the screen, the video automatically starts from the beginning. With the system of directional background sound, several visitors at once can listen to the audio without interfering with each other.

The first floor is occupied by a large-scale 'Russians in the World' installation and projection arranged on a 17m semicircular wall with a map of the world. There are also interactive panels, no less impressive, that tell about the contribution Russian emigrants made to the world science and culture. You can control them by pressing illuminated cube-shaped buttons. All multimedia surfaces on the second floor merge into one installation after a while, featuring a flock of flying birds, a symbol of emigration.

However, the heart of any museum is its exhibits and their history. The Museum of Russia Abroad has something more to offer besides digitised files.

Emigration gifts

One significant detail: there are no purchased exhibits in the Museum. The collection is entirely donated by first-wave Russian emigrants and their descendants. By the time the Museum opened, the House of the Russia Abroad had collected about 250,000 items exported from Russia after the Civil War of 1917-1922, as well as items and documents belonging to immigrants in their new countries of residence.

The Museum's exhibition is divided into parts covering different aspects of life in exile — 'Russian City', 'Army', 'Free Arts', 'Faith and Mercy', 'Education in Exile', 'Case of the Philosophical Steamship'. Since the collection has been formed of the gifts of individuals, some relatively narrow topics turn out to be unexpectedly deep for a non-specialised Museum. Russian youth and scout organisations abroad and the first developments of Russian aviation are among them.

'Retained Russia' is a cross-cutting theme of the exhibition on the second floor. The same-name showcase displays memorable items taken away from the homeland lost, which had been passing from one generation to another as the most precious things.

Literary collection

Much focus is placed on books. Here you will find works by Taffy, Sasha Cherny, Arkady Averchenko, Alexey Remizov, Vasily Aksenov and other writers released abroad. Many of them are autographed. The books are displayed along with memorial exhibits related to the lives of their authors.

A special section of the exhibition is dedicated to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who, once in the West, did a lot to preserve the life stories of many compatriots, who had been forced to leave their homeland. In 1996, the Russian emigration archive collected by the Solzhenitsyns was transferred to the library and foundation 'Russia Abroad' to launch the Museum’s history.

Among the writer's memorabilia are the Nobel Diploma he received at a ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December 1970, as well as the coat in which Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the USSR in 1974, after his 'The Gulag Archipelago' book was published in Paris.

The next showcase displays a favourite jacket of Vladimir Nabokov that became an accidental witness to a tragic incident in 1975. The author of 'Lolita' and 'The Luzhin Defence' had already settled in Montreux, Switzerland. Passionately fascinated by entomology, 74-year-old Nabokov was wearing this jacket, when, pursuing another butterfly, he stumbled, fell and had to lie on the mountainside for a few hours waiting for help. Two years later, Nabokov was gone, as the accident had severely damaged his health.

The exhibition presents books and letters by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian writer to receive the Nobel Prize in literature, and belongings of Ivan Shmelev, twice nominated for it, whose epic of the Civil War in the Crimea 'Sun of the Dead' made him famous all over Europe.

Most of the writers who had emigrated abroad fulfilled themselves in the western countries. Only few of them returned to the USSR. The exhibition describes two extreme lifelines — fates of Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Alexander Vertinsky, whose literary works are also represented in the Museum. The first is a poet, a historian, a ten-time nominee for the Nobel Prize, denouncing Bolshevism until the end of his days. The second one, a pop singer and an actor, had tried to settle in several countries in Europe, the United States and China, but eventually came back to his homeland in 1943. In his later years, Vertinsky even received the Stalin prize for his acting as Cardinal Birnch in the Soviet film 'Conspiracy of the Doomed' (1950).

Relics of the Royal family

The part of the Museum collection relating to the history of the House of Romanov abounds with rarities, with a woollen blanket of the 14-year-old Crown Prince Alexei, killed in 1918, knitted by his sisters, among them. It was picked up in the Ipatiev Mansion shortly after the Royal family’s execution.

A mourning veil of Nicholas II's mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, who managed to return to her native Denmark after the Revolution of 1917, is displayed nearby. That clothing article was a symbol of grief for her husband, Alexander III. The Empress, who was to live 10 years longer, could not admit that her son and his family were dead, she was not in mourning for them and forbade any prayers for the repose of their souls.

Their are many items that can tell about the life of the last Russian Emperor, such as coronation 'Khodynka' mugs, and a woven cloth with a monogram of Nicholas II some officer took from the Winter Palace, and a photo album from the 'Banner' Imperial yacht, made by the Royal family's physician in ordinary Evgeny Botkin, who was also killed in the Ipatiev Mansion. The former Imperial yacht outlived its owners for almost half a century. In the Soviet times, it was renamed three times. Before the Great Patriotic War, it was converted into a mine barrier to take part in the renowned operation to evacuate the defenders of Hanko Peninsula and was one of the first ships in the Baltic fleet to be awarded the title of a guard ship. Having been floating barracks and a target for missile-firing exercises after the war, the once luxurious ship was scrapped in the mid-1960s.

Take a look at a series of previously unknown drawings made in the early 1840s by the Crown Prince Alexander. Inspired by the era of the Patriotic War of 1812, the future Emperor Alexander II used to paint uniforms of soldiers and officers of the Russian army guard regiments of that time in minute detail. The widow of Valery Tomich, a major collector of military history of Russia, has donated these drawings to the Museum.

Military orders of Paraguay and army camp bed from the Philippines

The history of Russian emigration is full of dramatic episodes, little known in Russia. There are probably just a few people who ever heard about the participation of our compatriots in the most violent armed clash of the 20th century in Latin America or knows where to look for the island of Tubabao, associated with the mass exodus of Russian refugees in the late 1940s. The exhibits of the Museum of Russia Abroad include silent participants of these tragic events.

During the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Paraguay's President Mario Abdo Benítez handed over awards of Russian officers who participated in the Chako War of 1932-1935 to Vladimir Putin. This conflict between Paraguay and Bolivia was about the uninhabited border area of Gran Chaco, which was then believed to have rich oil fields, but the assumption has been confirmed in our time only.

By the beginning of the war, there were about 300 Russian emigrants in Paraguay. 86 of them stood up for their host country, and Paraguayans know all their names. Many of them were officers, veterans of World War I and the Civil War. Their experience helped the army of poor Paraguay to win that massacre. Six officers were awarded generalship, with some streets of Asunción, the country's capital city, named after them.

The drama around our compatriots unfolded in 1948 in China torn by a civil war, with the Communists overtaking. Thousands of Russians who had settled in Harbin, Beijing and Shanghai were threatened with forced deportation to the USSR. Despite all the efforts of the International Refugee Organization, the Philippines was the only country willing to grant them asylum.

Tubabao, a sparsely populated island of the Philippines, became a new place to live for about 6,000 Russian refugees. For a few tough years, they settled in an abandoned American WWII military base. Accommodation conditions were unusual for them, with their humid tropical climate, +45°C heat, frequent typhoons and storms, poisonous snakes and insects. At first, palm leaves were the only protection against the scorching sun and rain. People had to sleep on the bare ground, before American army camp beds allocated to refugees arrived.

The campground soon turned into a typical Russian town. Life was in full swing soon, with 14 districts constructed, one wooden and several tent churches, public kitchens and schools, a hospital and a dental clinic, a court and a police, a small prison and an open-air cinema arranged. There were even dance and piano classes offered.

The camp was closed in 1953. By that time, most of the Russian refugees had moved to other countries, mainly to the USA. However, about 40 families stayed in the Philippines. The Museum of Russia Abroad describes this epic with photos and a folding army bed exported from Tubabao to Australia, which had miraculously survived.