The house that did not exist

Photos by doroti danini

Photo by Rustem Adagamov

On the night from 2 to 3 January burnt down the Muromtsev dacha, the last historical wooden house of Moscow’s Tsaritsino district, which in the past century gave home to renowned writers, painters, musicians and scholars like Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin or mythic Venedikt Yerofeev – Venichka – whose Moscow-Petushki (or in some translations Stations of Moscow), written in 1968 and circulating for twenty years only as a samizdat, has been the most cruel caricature of the Brezhnev era.

This house was the last building of a suburban – podmoskovnoe – dacha settlement established back in the 19th century on a radiating ground plan conceived in the spirit of Ruskinian “communal settlements”. The large, wooded gardens of the resort settlement almost imperceptibly merged with the vast park of the 19th-century Tsaritsino Imperial Palace.

Poemas del Río Wang

In summer the traditional wooden dachas were inhabited by several distinguished members  of the Moscow high class. The article of Aleksandr Mozhaev on this house mentions several of them by name. Their imposing list also included Sergey Muromtsev, professor of Roman law in Moscow and president of the Kadet Party and of the first Russian parliament of 1906, who put on paper the plan of the first Russian constitution in this house, built by him at number 3 of the Fifth Radial Street. His dacha was a meeting point for the Moscow intelligentsiya. Ivan Bunin, the first Russian writer who would win a Nobel Prize, encountered here his future wife Vera, niece of Muromtsev.

In 1917 the cottage was  confiscated of the Muromtsev family. It first became a conscription office and after the civil war a school. In 1937, when the Tsaritsino school received a new stone building, the teachers moved in this house which is still being partly inhabited by their descendants – what’s more, the 104 years old granny belonged to the first inhabitants.

Since the 60’s a research institute of natural sciences has worked here as well, and some of its fellow colleagues also settled with the “natives”. Due to the families living in the house and their circle of friends, from the 70’s the house became Tsaritsino’s unofficial cultural center. Exhibitions were set up in the house, an alternative theater worked here, and evenings were organized in the garden where authors read their new works. Several artists lived here for a shorter or longer period, first of all Yerofeev, who wrote here his Vasiliy Rozanov and Walpurgis Night. Their photos, manuscripts and books as well as the documents of Tsaritsino’s history were used by the inhabitants to establish the Yerofeev Memorial Museum in the house.

Two photos by Dmitry Borko

After the change of regime in 1989 the city council passed the management of the territory to an unknown company called “Merkuriy”. This firm already in 1990 wrote the house off their books, declared it as non-existing and had it cancelled from the registers and maps of Moscow. The inhabitants, however, did not want to leave the house where they had been born and where they had lived for decades – also because they had no other place where to go. Thus they organized their own provision of water, heating and electricity. They set up a professional home page entitled “The house which does not exist” for spreading news about the museum and documenting their legal fights. In 2005 they initiated legal proceedings for the house without owner, with reference to their right of fifteen years of positive prescription, but the Court of Moscow has refused it. Then they turned for help to the Arkhnadzor association which has done much to protect the historical monuments in danger of Moscow. Arkhadzor has officially proposed the house for the list of the monuments protected by the State. Until the Cultural Ministry passes judgment on their request, no dislodgment and demolition is possible.

After these passes, as it was described already some months ago on the site of the house, some policemen appeared in the house to warn the inhabitants that, independently of any cultural protection, “you should understand that in such a house anything can happen, for example a fire”. As it did happen, in fact, in due time.

The fire of 3 January broke out in an uninhabited room of the house. First it seemed insignificant, and the inhabitants trusted that the fire brigades quickly arriving on the spot would extinguish it. However, the firemen declared that they had commands not to save the house. And in fact they did not extinguish the fire, but on the contrary, by breaking in the windows they contributed to its quick propagation.

Here I should include the photos made by the inhabitants and their friends on the fireguards just standing there and watching the fire. But I have no stomach to insert them. It is enough to have a look at this one, made of a young fireman peacefully sitting in Sergey Muromtsev’s hundred years old armchair who at the end of their performance took the chair with him, together with a number of other valuable objects saved from the burning house.

And the next morning, as if they had dreamed about the events beforehand, there were the bulldozers to sweep off the ruins of the house.

That the story did not finish here, as that of so many other old buildings – for this method is quite widespread in the region, as it has been noted by several commentators referring to actual cases in Moscow, Kaluga, Ryazan or Odessa – is due to a great extent to the Arkhnadzor association which has called the attention of the press and public on the Moscow buildings in danger. In the last year they organized a number of Yerofeev memorial evenings in the Muromtsev dacha, also covered by the daily press. The following pictures were made during one of these evenings in July 2009. Their complete – and evocative – series can be seen on the page of Rustem Adagamov.

Through these evenings information about the Muromtsev dacha and Yerofeev memorial museum has also spread throughout the Russian blog world, which now has immediately mobilized their network. By the time the bulldozers arrived, there were already dozens of people, journalists and TV reporters on the spot. The bulldozers have immediately disappeared and in the last two weeks they have not popped up again. Bloggers – those we have now borrowed pictures from, and several others – have asked for help to the provisional accommodation of the inhabitants (and what is more, of their cats), to provide them with clothes, food and money, and to the removal of the ruins. They have kept publishing photos and news, and they have founded an Association of the Muromtsev dacha whose blog has covered the events in real time. And the inhabitants have insisted not to give up the case but to endure and fight for the survival of the house. And whatever the end of the story will be, this solidarity, collaboration and resolution in any case merits great appreciation, sets an example, and raises hopes in the future of Russia. Many thanks for it.

“It happened so that before the seventies, when the city kept growing at a quick pace, the wooden palaces and noble houses disappeared one after the other, together with the courtesans and cousins of the former pashas, who had fought tooth and nail for the heritage, dividing among each other the old buildings by floors or even by flats, and then leaving them to be rotten without any care, the painting to be fallen, and the wood to get black of the cold and humidity; and frequently it was them to set the wooden houses on fire, so that a multi-storied building could be built on their place.”
Orhan Pamuk: Istanbul

“Nothing is eternal, except for dishonesty.”
Venedikt Yerofeev

Continuation: The house that does not exist any more

11 comentarios:

Languagehat dijo...

What an awful story -- thanks for publicizing it. A minor point: the word is podmoskovny (actually, in this context the feminine form is used, podmoskovnaya), not podmoskovskiy.

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you for the correction. I have now changed it in the text. You see how strong childhood impressions are: I had assimilated this adjective like podmoskovskie vechera from the famous song learned during my elementary school Russian studies, and although since then I obviously know the correct form, from time to time I automatically relapse into the use of the old one. Quo semel est imbuta recens, servabit odorem testa diu (in this case in the Italian sense of testa, rather than the Latin one).

Studiolum dijo...

oops, your authority has almost led me into a new error in the place of the old one. “Settlement” in this context is poselenie rather than koloniya, so the adjective should be in a neuter form.

Languagehat dijo...

I was going by the dictionary entry "подмосковная, ~ой, f. (obs.) estate near Moscow," or as Dahl defines it "деревня, имение, дача под Москвою." Presumably the feminine originally modified деревня 'village,' but it became a free-standing lexical item.

Studiolum dijo...

Oh yes, that is true. But my impression is that this use has mainly passed with Dahl. At least it seems to have a historical connotation like “pre-revolution [nobleman’s] estate around Moscow”. If nowadays a friend told “давайте поедем на подмосковную” with reference to their dacha, I would surely take it as a pun or self-irony.

My original aim was only to give the Russian equivalent of the adjective “suburban” in the hope that it would evoke in some readers the nostalgic memories connected with the above mentioned song…

Julia dijo...

Los desvío de la lingüística... pero ¿qué novedades hay ahora de los gatos? ¿Se sabe dónde (y cómo) están?

Studiolum dijo...

Sí. Aquí se puede seguir su destino. De los cuatro gatos (por allí hay las fotos) para una ya lograron hallar un dueño provisorio, mientras los otros tres están en la habitación de unos amigos, en el centro de Moscù.

Anónimo dijo...

The Moscow Authorities has destroyed the House this morning with buldozers and Omon. Some people that came to suuport were arrested (now all are free).
There are few people that stay there till the end.
Here are some links:
The Community blog of the Dacha:
Good photos of the event:
Anya Paykova (

Studiolum dijo...

Большое спасибо за информацию. Я глубоко потрясен известием о трагедии. Наше уважение и солидарность с жителями и с теми, которые им помогали. Буду давать новости нашим читателям.

Anónimo dijo...

I have information and videos in my blog about it:

the house after the fire

the demolition

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you very much! I will include the links in the other language versions of the post as well.