Arriving to Moscow, many visitors already have an idea of ‘must see’ places. They usually include Red Square, Kremlin Armory Museum, GUM, the Arbat, the Pushkin Museum, Tretyakov Gallery, Gorky Park, Bolshoi Theater, Sandunovsky Baths, Night Flight, riding the Moscow Metro and so on.
There is a bewildering choice of visual, cultural, artistic and simply people-energy places you can go and get immersed. One thing that all of the above have in common is that they are centric to Moscow and the Russian experience, a way of looking in through the windows of this house called Russia.
How about another take? What if I told you there was a place that combines museum, art gallery, library, archives and educational programs, which show the world we share as seen through the eyes of Russian emigres through the ages. How they see themselves, see their Russia, through the prism of the many countries of the world where fate cast the Russian diaspora. Emigres casting off from their homeland rarely through choice from social discord, wars, revolution, dissidence, political stresses through to the Soviet era of growth, pain, survival, dismemberment and back like the Firebird being reborn?
This is a worldview I have yet to see or hear told in the discussions and dissections of the literary media, or any media for that matter. Perhaps it is because it is at the same time revealing, often disturbing, and frequently celebrating the strength of spirit brought into focus through the eyes of émigré Russians.
The center bears the usual, somewhat awkward heavy name ‘House of the Russian Abroad named after Alexander Solzhenitsyn’, or ‘DomRZ’for short. It is located at Metro Taganka, just across the street from the well-known Taganka Theater. The street address is Nizhnyaya Radishhevskaya St., 2, Moscow, Russia.
I was introduced to DomRZ when it opened in 1995, and as an American of Russian descent, it was of particular interest to me as it dealt with Russians who emigrated from Russia. In my family, those were my great grandparents and grandparents when they had to flee Russia during the revolutionary civil war and the events that followed.
The DomRZ center was the brainchild of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who as writer, historian and dissident saw the deep and often contradictory stresses, and sacrifices the Soviet era demanded and its effects on the national psyche. It is also a celebration of the human spirit, as seen through the lives of Russians who having left all they knew and loved, started life from zero again, and either soared or crashed. Hundreds of experiences have been collected, researched and shown, the good, the bad. It is a concentrated tapestry of the human experience and expression stitched together with the threads of Russian lifetimes.
In the 24 years since its founding, DomRZ has evolved into a multifaceted center replete with museum, archive, research library, cultural and educational areas. It also has a rather good restaurant specializing in Russian dishes that have been ‘lost’ to Russia, yet have been revived here thanks to emigres who kept with tradition even in far-flung places and over many generations. It was in this restaurant while munching on some wonderful appetizers and listening to a very non-Russian Frank Sinatra crooning ‘That’s Life’ when I really felt an associative connection.
The focus of DomRZ is on the study of the achievements, and experiences of the ‘Russian Abroad’. It also seeks to maintain and develop links with the many and various centers of the Russian diaspora that have developed over time outside Russia.
The museum itself has over 8 thousand items on exhibit, and more than 25 thousand items archived that are being studied and researched. The library in and of itself is of significant historic and cultural value with over 130 thousand publications, of which over 80 thousand are émigré publications. The library and archives are growing constantly in real time with about 4 thousand new volumes added annually.
Many items of artistic and historic value from Russian’s and their descendants scattered throughout the world are unselfishly sent to DomRZ constantly in acknowledgement of the center’s stewardship and historical responsibility. The inflow was and remains strong, so much so that a brand-new building had to be built adjacent to the first in order to accommodate the artifacts, art and documentary materials.
One such example happened In the fall of 2014 when Andrew Smetankin, who was born in France of Russian parents simply gifted DomRZ his private collection of paintings by Russian artists which he spent his life acquiring. Among these art works are several that have never before been exhibited in public. Paintings by Malyavin, Alexandra and Albert Benois and others. His selfless gesture, along with many who have contributed to the museum over these few years are major contributions to the preservation and history of Russian culture from distant lands.
Since its founding, Victor Moskvin has been the director of DomRZ. I first met him in the very early days of the center, and its humble beginnings. Since then, through his efforts, and that of his excellent team were honored in 2009 with an Order of the Government of the Russian Federation – ‘in high appreciation of the significance and merits of the House of Russian Abroad in the field of culture and the social life of the country’.