This is the season Pushkin loved. His famously favorite time of year is not a fecund, Keatsian autumn, but something much harsher, embracing naked branches, frozen ponds and skies of "rippled gloom." He admits that it is almost perverse to love a time that others hate, but continues to champion the Russian frost as a tonic for physical and creative well-being. Pursuing this spirit of celebration in adversity, the next two weeks will retrace Pushkin's footsteps in and around Moscow. Much of the poet's early childhood was presided over by his maternal grandmother, Maria Hannibal, at whose house in the country he spent several summers and even some winters and it is here that we will begin. Traveling by train, the journey actually starts from Belorussky Station where you can buy a round-trip ticket to Zakharovo (on the line to Zvenigorod) for 126 rubles. Trains run roughly every hour throughout the day. If you've just missed one, you can always have a look around or go to one of the station's cafes. Next to the ticket offices, the corner room of the station is a painted, domed hall, built for the Tsar; the original art noveau restaurant is also worth a look, serving a 150 ruble business lunch between noon and 4 p.m. Leave time to get to the platform, which is through the turnstiles and over the bridge. The journey takes about an hour, but there is lots to see and a constant stream of vendors to keep you entertained.
By the time you arrive at Zakharovo, you have left Moscow behind. Turning left from the direction you have been traveling in, through trees and over a road, you skirt to the right around a playing field. This is the site of the yearly Pushkin Festival on the first Sunday in June. You can already see through the trees the reconstructed wooden house with the belvedere. Before you reach the house, you come to a rather sentimental modern statue near the well in the orchard, of the young Pushkin leaning on his grandmother's lap, book in hand, and gazing portentously into the distance, as if already conscious that his future greatness is being nurtured by the familial and natural surroundings. "With what quiet beauty," he later wrote, "the minutes of childhood flowed." Indeed, this monument supposedly marks the poet's favorite place, where even as a child he said he wanted to be buried.
The museum inside the house continues in the same vein. A variety of miscellaneous 19th century objects are used to conjure up a sense of the past, and every view and corner is embellished with quotations. A bust of Peter I on Maria Hannibal's writing desk reinforces the family's history, Peter having been godfather of and patron to Pushkin's enslaved-African-great-grandfather, A.P. Hannibal. Coming out of the house, turn right towards the lake where there is another statue, this time of the boy Pushkin looking soulfully across the water. This is probably the kind of view he had in mind when he wrote of "My Zakharovo, it is reflected in the mirror of waters, with all its fences, bridge, the shady grove."
Without crossing the bridge, turn left along the shore of the lake. When you reach the end, turn right along the road and then left along a lane on the other side of the water. Follow this lane, bearing slightly right and then left, following it into a field heading for the railway. When you reach the railway, climb up the steps cut into the bank, cross the single track and go down the other side. Turn right over some planks by a pond full of bullrushes and then follow the path left, round the edge of a field until a smaller path leads you left again to the road, crossing a ditch. On the other side of the road, look a little to your left for a path that goes straight on and then right around a field of allotments.
On the far side of the allotments, the path becomes a bit indistinct, but by this time you can already see the
lovely 16th century Transfiguration Church at Bolshye Vyazyomy on the horizon. Heading towards the church, you soon find another path which takes you left downhill, crossing a stream on stone slabs and then right at the top of the bank. Follow the path round to the left behind the houses and only go right when a defined track leads you to the road. Crossing the busy Mozhaiskoe Shosse, there is a rare café on the other side where you can get a cheap and hearty bowl of solyanka. Going past the cafe away from the main road, along Ulitsa Institut, you come to the gates into Bolshye Vyazyomy on your right.
This estate has had many owners, including Boris Godunov. The current house, with its two annexes and between the lake and a park of lime trees, was built by the Golitsyn family in the late 18th century. Pushkin often stayed here when it belonged to Natalia Golitsyn who served as the model for the ancient countess in "The Queen of Spades."
From inside the pleasantly furnished museum, with the noise from the road blocked out, the views of the estate can be appreciated in peace. The church is also worth visiting with its beautiful, free-standing belfry. Round the side of the church, a wonky marble column marks the grave of Nikolai Pushkin, the poet's younger brother, who died when he was six. In a poem, Pushkin describes an autumn visit to the graveyard "where drowse the dead in solemn peace."
Going on along Ulitsa Institut, past the stables, turn left after the playing field and then right by a small shop. Take this road southwards between a line of silver birches and a factory chimney, turning right at the end by a bright red house. Follow the path across the river and then turn left to follow a path running alongside a white wall. At the end of this, turn right onto Banny Pereulok which leads past some old houses to Golitsyno station, from where frequent trains run back to Moscow.
Pushkin himself was forced to leave this childhood idyll for a school near St. Petersburg when he was twelve, but it is significant that he nostalgically revisited the area one last time, just before he got married, which is where we will pick up the story next week...
Family friendly features
Pushkin is a writer that children can relate to fairly easily. His fairy stories are available in English in beautifully illustrated editions.
Both museums are primarily concerned with the poet's childhood and therefore have a number of children's books and toys on display. Upstairs in Bolshye Vyazyomy, the nursery has a glass-walled doll's house and some antique teddies.
The pastry stall at Golitsyno station sells great cherry pies for the journey home.