Just a few decades ago, writing letters was the most popular way of communication. In their handwritten or printed correspondence, people shared news, confessed their love, asked after their relatives, and even praised their idols. Today these messages from the past serve as a source of information about people and their country.
Check out the story below prepared by mos.ru and Mosgortur (Moscow Recreation and Tourism Agency) to enjoy several interesting letters stored at Moscow museums and find out why they were written.
From Hippilyonok to Vladimir Vysotsky: The funny letter
In the 1970s, Vladimir Vysotsky was one of the most famous person in the Soviet Union. The Taganka Theatre, where he worked, received fan mail from around the country. People sent letters to thank Vysotsky for his songs and poems, and shared with him their impressions of the films and theatre productions he starred in. Some showed respect by addressing the poet and actor as Mr Vysotsky, while others chose to be less formal and used his first name, just Volodya. Among the hundreds of letters stored at the State Vladimir Vysotsky Museum is one from a Russian hippy.
“Hippies salute you, hippies idolise you. I am a hippy. We are hippies. Vysotsky is our god. But does he even have anything to do with hippies?” writes Tanya Garbuzova from Simferopol, who calls herself “Hippilyonok.” The admirer writes to her idol in a very informal manner, asking Vysotsky for an autograph in exchange for her own, and chats easily about someone she refers to as uncle Fedya who “has got dental restorations, but is still limping.” The light tone of her letter is emphasised by the postscript: “Say hello to the Soviet cosmonauts in flight! Hurrah!!”
It is not known whether the poet responded to that letter or whether he read it at all, but after a few years, a hippie theme surfaced in his work.
He made a cameo in The Flight of Mr McKinley, a Soviet science fiction drama released in 1975. Cast as street singer Bill Sigger, Vysotsky wrote several songs specifically for his character, including The Mystery of Hippies. Later, Vysotsky recalled:
“I wrote an entire little opera where I tried to express the philosophy of this movement and recorded it with a choir. It was a hippie prayer, like a spell.”
At the premiere, Vysotsky found out that most of his songs (including The Mystery of Hippies) had been cut out during editing.
This and other pieces from Vysotsky’s fan mail can be viewed in detail at the online exhibition Dear Vladimir Semyonovich, now available on the Vladimir Vysotsky Museum website.
From an eight-year-old girl to Joseph Stalin: The sad letter
The second half of the 1930s was one of the most terrible periods in Soviet history. Mass repression impacted the lives of millions. Desperate to know what happened to their relatives, people wrote letters to the investigative authorities, but rarely received comprehensive answers.
Yefrem Lipsky, a chief metallurgical engineer of the 1st Main Directorate of the Soviet People's Commissariat for the Defence Industry, was arrested on 29 October 1937 on charges of participating in a counter-revolutionary terrorist organisation. Lipsky’s wife and two daughters did not know for some time where he was or if he was even alive. One of the daughters, Lena, aged 8, decided to write a letter to a person she thought could definitely help her dad and eliminate injustice – Joseph Stalin.
“Only recently did mummy find out that he was convicted and sent to one of the NKVD camps. But we know this was a mistake, and for this reason we want his case to be reviewed,”the girl wrote with her typical childish script and spelling. To make sure her letter did reach the country's leader, Lena went to the Kremlin and asked the guard soldiers there to deliver it to Stalin. She went from one entrance to another, but no one agreed to help. She kept asking until evening, when she finally went home clutching the letter, which turned out to be useless.
A few months after his arrest, on 18 February 1938, her father was convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad. In 1955, Lipsky was completely rehabilitated.
Lena Lipskaya's descendants kept her letter for many years, until 2018, when they donated this family relic to the Gulag History Museum.
From an unknown source to Friedrich Zander: The fantastic letter
Long letters are not the only source that can tell fascinating stories; sometimes short notes can do as much. One such note is now kept in the collection of the Museum of Cosmonautics.
In 1931, Friedrich Zander met someone who was to become one of the most important people in his life – Sergei Korolev. The two designers worked on the first Soviet liquid-propellant rocket as part of the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion (GIRD). As a high school student, Zander became interested in space exploration – at one of his lessons, the teacher read to the class excerpts from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's article “Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices.” Incidentally, many years later, the scientist and his wife gave their children space-related names: their daughter was named Astra, and their two sons were called Mercury and Mercury Jr.
Friedrich Zander was not only an inventor, but also a science populariser – in his free time, he lectured on the conquest of space. In 1924-1925, he spoke in Moscow, Ryazan, Tula, Leningrad, Saratov, and Kharkov. Each of his lectures was a huge success, with the public crowding into rooms to listen to Zander. On one of these evenings, a grateful participant handed him a note:
“I really do believe that people will reach other planets. Even as a little girl, I believed in this. It’s just a pity that all sorts of people will be able to get to other planets, including those, for example, who were pounding at the door and disrupting your lecture. They have corrupted the Earth, and now they will fly to corrupt other worlds.”
The launch of the GIRD-X rocket, the project Zander and his comrades worked on, took place on 25 November 1933, but he never lived to see its flight. Shortly before the start of field trials, he contracted typhus and went to Kislovodsk for treatment. The great scientist died there on 28 March 1933.
From Maxim Gorky to Nadezhda Ladygina-Kots: The scientific letter
One of the most prominent Soviet writers, Maxim Gorky, believed very much in the power of human thought. He was at the origins of the Soviet Institute of Experimental Medicine. It was the writer who convinced the country's leaders of the need to implement this project by using his high standing with the Soviet authorities. Scientists at the institute worked on many important projects to improve human life. The most ambitious one was a radical increase in life expectancy – the achievement of immortality.
Gorky was on a first-name basis with many of the most famous scientists in the Soviet Union, and had a long correspondence with some of them. In his letters, he thanked them for their work, asked about their new research, and shared observations and hypotheses. He frequently wrote to Nadezhda Ladygina-Kots, a zoopsychologist and the wife of the Darwin Museum founder.
In one of the letters kept at the Darwin Museum, Gorky asked Nadezhda Ladygina-Kots: “I read a quote from Helen Keller in the book that you have so lovingly sent to me. Let me ask you: do you know about the deaf-blind woman at the Kharkov Institute of Professor Ivan Sokolyansky, or about his work with that woman?”
Helen Keller, whom Gorky mentioned, contracted scarlet fever at 19 months old, which left her both deaf and blind. However, with the help of special methods and many years of her teacher’s efforts, Keller was able not only to adapt to society, but even to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. The writer was interested in the similar practice used by Soviet scientists.
Professor Sokolyansky, also mentioned in the letter, was one of the leading Soviet disability specialists. He worked with children in Uman, Moscow and Kharkov. More than 20 years after his death, in 1981, his service to the country was recognised at the highest level – he won the State Award for creating a scientific system for teaching deaf-blind children.
From Tatyana Shletser-Scriabina to her husband: The love letter
In early 1911, the composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin went on a concert tour in Germany. The tour included several major German cities. His children and his wife, Tatyana, who missed her husband very much, remained at home in Moscow.
The first city Scriabin visited was Dresden, where he arrived on 2 February (old style), then Leipzig and Berlin. In the capital of Germany, Scriabin had several meetings with Mikhail Gnesin, who noticed how badly the pianist missed his home and family. Gnesin recalled: “He came to Berlin alone, without Tatyana, and he was in need of attention.” Over the two-and-a-half weeks of his tour, Scriabin wrote several letters to his wife, and after each concert, he sent telegrammes to Moscow.
Tatyana Shletser-Scriabina wrote to her husband just as often. One of her letters, dated 4 February, is stored at the Scriabin Memorial Museum. Just a few days after her husband’s departure, she writes: “How I am yearning for you! If I had a little more money, then no doctor in the world would keep me in Moscow anymore.” She calls Scriabin many sweet names – “cute little dusik,” “katyavochka,” the “wondrous bright God” and a “gentle, magical flower.”
Scriabin’s last solo concert as part of his German tour took place in Berlin on 14 February. A few days later, he returned to Moscow to Tatyana and the children. You can imagine what a happy reunion they had.