The House Of Russia Abroad

Paul Goncharoff

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?

White Army Exodus from Crimea (Dom RZ)

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 RZ Museum

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.

C.L. Gollerbach – Breakfast 3 friends (Dom RZ)

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’. 

Director Moskvin

Now in 2019, the DomRZ is no awkward duckling anymore; it is a graceful Swan with a constant and energetic offering of monthly educational, artistic, cultural and literary programs beyond its core permanent exhibitions. 

The history of the Russian diaspora is represented in the museum through the waves of Russian émigrés. It was one of the largest waves of human migration in the history of the twentieth century, encompassing entire classes of a society. 

The drama of forcible expulsion of millions of Russians beyond the borders of their homeland and the stories of how they maintained a ‘Russia outside Russia’. How did they understand and see the tectonic breaks in world history that were happening in their lifetime? How they preserved national, spiritual and cultural identity? How did the émigrés build a dialogue between themselves and their adoptive countries? What contribution has this ‘foreign Russia’ made to world culture? The DomRZ Museum was created and exists to answer these and many other questions that spin off in many directions.

The permanent exhibition is located on two floors, starting on the second floor with the background of Russian emigration – the theme being the collapse of the Empire and the exodus of people. Here the visitor, moving from gallery to gallery can see the different stages of the post-revolutionary Russian emigration. Viewed through museum relics, archival documents, representative objects, illustrations, and multimedia programs defining the milestones in the history of the emigrations, from the ‘first wave’ onward.

A central and unifying theme in this history is the path of the White Army, its retreat, and the movement of civilian refugees. The history of the famous ‘Philosophers Steamship’ when in 1922 Lenin sent Russia’s best philosophers off on a cruise and told them not to come home unless they wanted to be shot.

The creation of the Nansen ‘passport’ in 1922 when Fridtjof Nansen convened a conference of the League of Nations in Geneva where he obtained states’ agreement to a ‘Nansen certificate’ to be issued to Russian refugees who could afford to pay a fee of five gold francs. 

The geographical mapping of the scattering and timeline of the ‘first wave’ of Russian emigration. It is estimated that there were more than 1.5m Russians scattered across the globe and particularly in major cities such as Constantinople, Prague, Berlin and Paris by 1921.

In adjoining and linked galleries are the history of the formation and preservation of education, science, literature, and the Orthodox Church. Outgrowths from these include charities, cultural and youth movements, as well as memorial activities of the military emigration and archival and museum collections. 

The first floor is called the ‘hall of fame’; it is bright with a feeling of open space and endless possibilities. The scenes of this part of the exhibition form a navigational path through the pages of the history of the Russian diaspora – from exile to writing new pages in history replete with discoveries, successes and other significant phenomena. This part of the DomRZ is dedicated to notable people – writers, scientists and artists, as well as political and public figures. The bottom line: Through the fate of individuals, the visitor can see the history of achievements of foreign Russia. It is a view and perspective worth seeing, and I can think of no better place to learn of its relevance to the world we all live in than this wonderfully unique center in Moscow.