Abramtsevo and Zagorsk

Visiting Russia's artistic and cultural heritage.

Click on any image for an enlarged view.

Part one: Abramtsevo

The train takes us about an hour and a half from Moscow into the countryside.
An hour and half by train north of Moscow takes you near Abremtsevo, an artists' estate containing works from many periods in Russian art history. I had never heard of the estate before and was not quite sure what to expect. It was also the first time there for Nino, Ali and Tatyana, as well.

It was my first trip on a Russian train, and also my first trip into the Russian countryside. Pulling out of the station and then on our way, I watched as the landscape slowly changed from the crowded, packed buildings of Moscow gradually to the country. This transition from city to countryside included passing many industrial parks, until the trees surrounding them became the main feature of the landscape.

Along the way into the country we saw people with livestock, horses and goats, and also the famous Russian summer houses, or dachas. This was Sunday so many people were out in the countryside, seeking rest and refuge from the pace of Moscow.

Once off the train, we weren't sure which direction to go, since none of us had ever been to Abramtsevo before. While we looked around, obviously a bit lost, a young boy waved over to us to follow. He was already leading a small group, and invited us to tag along.

Descending into the forest.
We crossed over the tracks to the other side and descended a path down into the forest. I was surprised how lush and green it was, and was very glad to be out of the city for a change. It was also quiet; I had forgotten what quiet was like. Birds sang softly and small creatures and insects rummaged under our feet as we made our way. The sun was bright, but not too much sunlight penetrated the treetops, so our walk through the forest was mostly in the cool shade.

Eventually, the path through the forest brought us to a two lane country road that wound its way to the estate. We had no idea how long the walk would be, but the weather was good and the countryside was a pleasant divergence from hectic Moscow, so even a long walk was welcome.

A few cars passed us along the way, and many bicycles ridden by local residents or weekenders from their dachas. The land was fairly flat, not like here in Atlanta at the foot of the Appalachian mountains, but occasionally the view opened up to reveal a rolling meadow and gentle hills. A couple of times our young guide glanced over his shoulder at us and urged us to hurry our pace. 'I'm on vacation here, Sonny boy,' I joked, but did, in fact, pick up my pace a bit.

We came across a stream on the way, and some people swimming and fishing. Was it part of the Moscow River? I had no idea. But it at least provided some relief from the heat for the Sunday revelers.

Along the way to Abramtsevo.
Finally, the boy pointed up a short path, turned and disappeared running in the opposite direction. I was surprised that he didn't stay and allow us to pay him some reasonable amount for his help. In fact, I was already digging in my pockets for a few thousand rubles when he vanished.

Purchasing our tickets I noticed the visotors were a rather international bunch. Certainly there were Russians but also some Americans and Germans as well. Abremtsevo consists of many buildings housing works of art from many Russian periods, all created at the estate. Many of the buildings themselves feature architectural works created by resident artists of past years. Ornate designs decorate fireplaces, entranceways, staircases, just about any part of several of the buildings.

Unfortunately, as with most museums, it is forbbiden to take pictures inside, so I can't show you any of these impressive works. We'll have to settle for a stroll around the outside; but hey, that's not too bad, eh?

I'm not sure when the estate was established, but most of the work appears to have been done in the 1800's to the early 1900's. There are a variety of paintings in the collections, including portraits and many impressionist works that were both original and beautiful. I found myself most attracted to these impressionist works, which were not like the many more famous works I have seen in other museums.

One of the main houses.
As I was looking at the artwork, I realized how little I actually knew about Russian art history. In fact, I began thinking how much good it would do to expose more Americans to these great works, since so many Americans only relate Russian history to Soviet times, and then perhaps just specks of knowledge about the czars.

As my trip continued, and I visited more museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I would soon realize how rich and broad the history of art really is in Russia. These paintings I was viewing here in Abramtsevo, I would soon learn, were only a small fraction of the treasures the two cities I was visiting held.

There was a peacefulness here in the Russian countryside that I imagine allowed resident artists to work and study in absolute serenity. It must have been an ideal place for an artist to realize his or her potential. As I understand, students do still study here, but I don't know much about the program, or how much time they spend in Abremtsevo. If anyone knows of any internet resources about the estate I would love to hear from you.

Between exploring the houses of the museum, I also wandered around a bit in the surrounding countryside. There are paths that lead away from the buildings and the cleared yards into small meadows and underneath shaded forest areas. After the pace and noise of Moscow, just wandering into the forest and laying in the grass was a fine way, for me anyway, to appreciate the peace and beauty of Abramtsevo and the countryside.

A young painter tries her hand.
To the right you can see a young artist creating a picture of the main house of the museum. She was a bit shy and reluctant to have her picture taken, but relaxed a bit when she realized that she wouldn't have to face the camera. There were several painters out that day creating landscapes and portraits of various features of the estate.

There are photographs hanging in many of the buildings depicting many of the artists who created works at Abramtsevo. I tried to imagine what it must have been like, say in the nineteen twenties, for these artists to be working here. The estate must have afforded them the ideal place to work. Imagine the privilege of having such a place to create your work, without any of the interruptions or bothersome aspects of today's modern life.

It was very easy, while exploring the estate, to begin to feel that maybe they had a better way of life, at least a more sane one, than we have today. No smog from heavy automobile traffic clouded their canvases. Phones didn't ring in the middle of an important work. A much simpler way of life looks real attractive after you've spent even a bit more than a week in a city as hectic and confusing as Moscow.

One gets a feeling while at Abramtsevo that all of the modern devices we think we need might not really be all that necessary. You can see in the houses many of the devices used by the residents of the estate and imagine that you, yourself, might be able to get along pretty well here.

Another house containing more artwork.
Of course, it might only take a day or two before I'd start missing my stereo, computer, and favorite Atlanta restaurants. Still, the concept of no telephone bills, car insurance, and crowded city life is attractive.

The building to the left was one of several that illustrates the intricate detail paid to many aspects of the architecture. Even simple stair railings were created as fine artwork. Once inside, every piece of the building's structure demonstrates an artist's skill and fine touch. I truly which I would have been allowed to take a few photos for you, but one suspicious move with a camera can get you quite a scolding from the resident babushkas. These women are not to be messed with!

There is an old saying, I think from Shakespeare, 'Hell hath no furry like a woman scorned.' This could just as easily be phrased, 'Hell hath no fury like a babushka who works in a museum and thinks you're about to take a picture of the art.' It's always best to be on the safe side and just leave the camera in the bag.

Okay, now that we're on the subject of babushkas, I can go ahead and tell you a story. Once, after coming out of the subway station, we decided to try and find some fresh strawberries among the many fruits and vegetables that are so often sold outside the stations.

Nino was perusing the available produce and I was just standing there looking around, the one thing I could do in Moscow without getting myself in trouble. So what if I had silly American tourist written all over my face?

Anyway, there always seemed to be a couple of stray dogs hanging around where there was food for sale. This place was no exception; two poor homeless dogs wandered around the shoppers, hoping for some small morsel to come their way. I myself thought of buying them something to eat, but wasn't really sure if the vendors would like this too much.

And still more artwork!
While I was waiting an old babushka turned away from where she had just purchased some onions or something, and almost stepped on one of the stray dogs. The dog jumped up and growled at her menacingly. Well, she was to have none of that, especially from some mongrel stray, and bent down and yelled at the dog with her face close enough to bite him on the end of the nose.

The poor dog looked scared for his very life, tucked his tail between his hind legs and tried running backwards. I suppose he was too scared to take his eyes off the babushka. While trying to run backwards he stumbled, and went rolling onto his side. He righted himself quickly and ran off as fast as he could.

When you think about the Russian resolve for surviving in difficult situations, and witness scenes like this one, you come to realize it's the babushkas who carry and pass down to the next generation the 'tough' gene. Russia owes a great debt to her babushkas, and I salute them, even if I do fear them a bit.

Not to mean, of course, that they are without their humor. Once entering the metro station, I tried to use Nino's ID card that has her picture on it. I showed the card to the babushka watching the gates, just to see if she really looked at the cards that closely. She began to wave me through while examining the picture at the same time. When she realized the picture didn't look like me, and was not even the correct gender, she grabbed my arm laughing and began scolding me in Russian.

Nino rushed over, also laughing, to rescue me, and the woman pushed me through the gate with a firm but affectionate shove. She was still laughing and waving her finger at me as I descended the escalator to the trains. It was a fun little trick, and sharing a laugh with a real babushka is a great feeling.

An old church on the property.
When we had seen everything we could at the estate, we realized we were very hungry. We hadn't eaten since breakfast and it was now almost five in the afternoon. Someone told us there was a small cafe across the road from the estate, so we headed in that direction.

We found a small shop and outdoor area with tables and chairs, and a small barbecue like stove with wood burning in it. There was some kind of meat on sticks over the fire, but we weren't sure what it was. We asked a young woman behind a table who was slicing a loaf of bread, and she replied that the meat was chicken. I threw my arms into the air and said, 'Yahoo! A starving and humble American sincerely thanks you!' Chicken is my favorite food.

The young woman smiled, slightly, a little unsure of what to think, but I imagine she was thinking, 'These stupid tourists sure are weird.'

While the chicken was cooking Nino and I went inside the store to see what we could find to drink. Fanta soft drinks are very popular in Russia, so we settled on a big bottle of Fanta Orange drink to go with our chicken.

While we were eating Ali suggested that we go another train stop or two north to Zagorsk, a small monastary community. We had enough daylight left, remember these long Mocow days, so we decided to press on. With a belly full of delicious chicken I felt ready for anything. We walked again down the country road, through the forest, and back to train platform. In just a few moments were were on the train to Zagorsk.

(The right arrow will take you to Part Two: Zagorsk)

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