The Tolstoy museum


Back in 1978 I spent a few days with a tour group in Moscow. The guides got tired of us after a while, and let us go off on our own. I noticed that some of the classic authors – Gorky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy – had small museums dedicated to them around the city, and I decided to visit the Tolstoy museum.



It took me forever to find it; it was an inconspicuous door on a side street. I rang, and two old ladies ushered me in, babbling in Russian (I knew only a few words in Polish, which is close to Russian, but not close enough for me to fake it most of the time.) They showed me the house, which was small but magnificent; it was Tolstoy’s pied-a-terre in Moscow, full of beautiful furniture, and manuscripts displayed everywhere.



Finally the old ladies brought me into the library. There were at least fifteen or twenty folding chairs set up, and I was the only visitor; they sat me down in the front row, and got out an old Edison cylinder machine, and got it set up, and –  well, I didn’t know what to expect.



Finally, from the Edison cylinder, I heard something: a man’s voice, scratchy, evidently reading from something. The two old ladies were staring at me, waiting for my response.




Aha. This was a recording of Tolstoy himself, reading (presumably) from one of his own books. And the museum ladies were waiting for my response.



I gave them everything I had. I told them it was good, in Polish (which they may or may not have understood). I smiled.



And they seemed to be very happy, having shared their museum with me.



This is one of my best memories from my trip to Russia. It seems like a dream now, of course; I barely remember the details of the house, or of the sound of Tolstoy’s voice, or what the old ladies looked like.



But I do remember how lovely I felt as I left.


Unhygienic travel stories


It’s lucky that most of us do our heavy-duty adventure traveling while we’re young. We’re more resilient, and can take it in stride, more or less, when strange things happen. (And we know that it’ll make a kick-ass story when we get back home.)

For example: my student assistant Jennifer told me that, in China, you can use a dirty public toilet for free, but you have to pay to use a clean one.

But that’s nothing.

How about the time I chased a rat down the hallway in Morocco, until I saw it jump into the toilet and disappear?

How about the time I was having kamounia at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Tunis, and found weevils cooked in with the couscous? (I just picked them out and put them on the side of the plate. I didn’t complain. I’d just paid twenty-five cents for dinner; I certainly didn’t expect the Waldorf-Astoria.)

How about those kvass dispensers in the USSR back in 1978? (Kvass is a light beer, very refreshing, and I wish they sold it here. I think they make it by soaking bread in water and fermenting the result.)  It was sold in drink machines, just like soft drinks and coffee in the US, except that everybody used the same glass. (There was a little water-spout you were supposed to use to wash the glass out when you were done.)

But the best story of all belongs to my friend Mike, back in Morocco, as follows:

He moved into a simple house in El-Jadida, a beautiful beach town on the Atlantic coast. The house had no toilet; you had to use a privy out in the garden.

His first night there, he went out in the dark to use the privy. As he sat, he could hear an odd rustling around him. This gave him the creeps, so he finished his business, went in the house for a flashlight, and came back out to see what the noise was.

It was bugs. The walls and ceiling of the privy were alive with insects, mostly huge flying cockroaches, more than he’d ever seen.

He shrieked, ran back in the house, grabbed the insect spray (which, in Morocco in 1984, was probably straight DDT), and ran back to the privy to kill the bugs.

Do you see the flaw in his reasoning?

He went into the privy and started spraying, and they all started dying. And as they died, they fell, by the dozens and the hundreds, all over him.

I still twitch whenever I think of that story.

I dare you to top it.

Alexander Scriabin


I have been rereading David Lindsay’s odd and fascinating novel “A Voyage to Arcturus” lately. There’s a wonderful line in the first chapter, describing a society lady sitting slumped at the piano: “She had been playing Scriabin, and was overcome.”



I have Scriabin playing in the background right now as I write this. I wouldn’t describe myself as “overcome,” but I’m enjoying it.



Alexander Scriabin was a Russian composer at the turn of the last century. He started as a Chopinesque romantic, but gradually became more and more experimental. His music is visionary and free-form; it’s not atonal, but it has a harmonic vocabulary of its own. Scriabin gave his symphonies titles like “The Poem of Ecstasy” and “Prometheus: A Poem of Fire.” Two of his piano sonatas are “The White Mass” and “The Black Mass.” (How can you not love a fin-de-siecle composer who thinks the height of wickedness and fashion is a Black Mass?)


The piano music sighs up and down the keyboard in long almost-tonal arpeggios. Almost-melodies come and go. Bizarre insect-like trills interrupt the proceedings. The symphonic music is very heady: dark and rich like chocolate cake. Scriabin wanted fragrances pumped into the air supply of the concert hall, and colored lights, so that all of the senses would be involved. He wanted everything at once.


Wow! Overload!


Scriabin died in 1915 of an infection, supposedly from having cut himself while shaving.


The following is the second and final movement of Scriabin’s fourth piano sonata. He wrote a poem to go with it: about a faint blue star which, when approached, becomes a gigantic sun, a “sun of triumph!”, which is engulfed by the one who loves it.



If you listen to it: don’t let it overcome you.


Or – what the hell! Why not?



06_Sonata_no._4_Prestissimo_volando.wma Listen on Posterous




Moscow! Moscow! Moscow!


I went to the USSR in the summer of 1978. The only way into the country in those days was through one of the state-sponsored agencies, Intourist or Sputnik. Mine was a Sputnik tour, for college students, staff, and faculty. We were very international – Danes, Spaniards, Americans. We were also very independent, and rebellious. Our tour leader was a pale nervous Ukranian named Viktor, and he couldn’t keep up with us; we kept getting away from him. (We scared him almost to death by singing the Russian Imperial Anthem in front of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Leningrad.) By the time we arrived in Moscow (our last stop), Viktor had given up. He just wouldn’t plan activities for us anymore. We had lots of free time in Moscow as a result.



This was not a bad thing. Moscow, like most large cities, is full of interesting things to see. (Naturally you have to see the Kremlin and the GUM department store and St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s tomb, but it’s full of other things too.) One day I traipsed over to Novodevichy Convent, a beautiful run-down Orthodox structure with an overgrown churchyard/garden, where an elderly priest and an elderly nun drowsed together on a park bench. It took me a while, but I finally found the grave I was looking for: SERGEI NIKITICH KHRUSHCHEV. It was unmown and untended.



Another day, I wandered through old winding streets looking for Leo Tolstoy’s house, which (according to the guidebooks) had been turned into a museum. I found it at last, almost unmarked, a nice house with an old-fashioned door. An old lady let me in (Russian museum attendants in those days seemed always to be old ladies), scolded me when I tried to go through the EXIT turnstile (ENTRANCE and EXIT are very similar in Russian, and I still get them mixed up), and brought me inside.



I was the only visitor. Another old-lady docent came swooping out of a side room, and the two of them grabbed me and dragged me through the house, showing me everything, giving me the two-dollar tour in machine-gun Russian (which I barely speak). The house was nineteenth-century and lavish and full of books and rich wood paneling and manuscripts and photographs. The old ladies brought everything out of the cases, showed me books and photo albums, insisted that I touch things, argued with one another, and generally had a very good time.



Finally they brought me into a small drawing room set up with folding chairs. One sat me down and stayed with me in the audience area; the other went up front, put a cylinder on an old Edison machine, wound it up, and let it play. It was an old man’s voice, scratchily recorded, speaking slowly and carefully in Russian, either reciting or reading aloud. The two old ladies fell silent and watched my face closely. At last the nickel dropped in my head. “Graf Tolstoy?” I asked, pointing at the cylinder player.



They grinned and nodded.



It was an ancient recording of Count Leo Tolstoy reading aloud.



That, children, was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had, and I barely understood a word of it.



It just goes to show you.




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