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A Cult in the Making: Joseph Brodsky in Petersburg

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Joseph Brodsky, the 1987 Nobel Prize winner, was kicked out of the USSR in 1972 on an Israeli visa contrived by the Soviet authorities – refusal to emigrate would have resulted in compulsory psychiatric “treatment.” Before his rushed departure, this high-school dropout eked out a living in menial jobs, was tried for “social parasitism,” and wrote apolitical verse smuggled abroad for publication. Somewhat typically given the Soviet living space deficit, he shared a room with his parents. The room was located on the second floor of a stately late 19th-century building known as the House of Muruzi, in the historic center of Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad). Muruzi, the original Greek owner of the building, had designed it in opulent Moorish style (the main synagogue offers another impressive example of this style in the city). After the revolution the spacious quarters were converted into communal apartments. The Brodsky family occupied a room in the former apartment of Muruzi’s lawyer, sharing the kitchen and common areas with a few other families.

View of the Brodskys windows from the street (photo by author)

Later, already living in America, Brodsky would describe their peculiar living arrangements in the autobiographical essay “In a Room and a Half.” The “half,” an annex separated from the main space by two carved arches, was Brodsky’s personal domain. In the essay, he recalls his desperate attempts to create some privacy by filling the arches with makeshift bookshelves. Brodsky never returned to visit this room or his native city. After the death of his parents in the mid-eighties, their room passed on to other tenants.

Brodsky’s “room and a half” (photo by the author)

But the times changed: the USSR collapsed, Leningrad was renamed Saint-Petersburg again, and Brodsky was transformed from pariah to “great Russian poet.” The project to create a Brodsky museum in his former “room and a half” originated shortly after his death but it took over twenty years to realize. While friends and relatives were collecting memorabilia, a foundation, financed by a local entrepreneur, began to buy up properties in the Muruzi building. Now the museum owns most of the apartment where the Brodskys lived (one stubborn neighbor refused to move out, and still resides behind the museum wall), an adjacent apartment with a spacious enfilade of rooms, a cozy lecture amphitheatre, and a bookstore-café at the entrance downstairs. Because of its somewhat irregular situation in the midst of a residential building, the museum can open its doors only periodically for guided tours, lectures and poetry readings. It has nonetheless quickly become a cult place. I was surprised to hear from some tourists from Novosibirsk that their number one destination in Petersburg was Brodsky’s “Room and a Half.” After the tour, visitors can help themselves to a cup of tea and a cookie, grab a book from a shelf and enjoy some quiet moments in a comfortable chair in front of an old-fashioned Soviet TV set showing black-and-while movies.

Museum premises (photo by the author)

The museum is very unconventional. All the interiors were gutted and restored by Moscow architect Alexander Brodsky (no relation, though his name is identical to Brodsky’s father’s) to reveal the 1960-1970s look of the walls, parquet and window frames. A narrow room contains bookcases with archival materials, including photographs and books signed by the poet. The room immediately adjacent to Brodsky’s “half” has the original piano – Brodsky recalled being annoyed by his teenage neighbor practicing her simple tunes behind the wall.

The original piano of Brodsky’s neighbors (photo by the author)

But the main “shrine” remains empty, except for one temporary item – an orange lampshade decorated with applications cut out by Brodsky’s mother Maria from the black photo paper that was always around the house – Brodsky’s father worked as a photographer. The lamp used to hang over their dinner table. The appliqué pictures on the shade require special humidity control though, so it will be soon sent back to storage.

Brodskys’ lamp with decorations made by his mother (photo by the author)

In any event, what the museum creators look to promote is the “concept of emptiness.” Visitors are encouraged to feel the energy of the space. The concept of emptiness may be born of necessity, since the museum has practically no personal belongings of the poet except for some “historic trash” found under the floor boards during remodelling: postcards, scraps of newspaper and cigarette stubs. Joseph was a notorious smoker. Most stubs were characteristically discovered under the place where his bed once stood – the future Nobel laureate clearly put out his cigarettes against a cast-iron radiator and pushed them through the cracks in the parquet floor. Little did he know that decades later they would be excavated and placed in an archive, along with his manuscripts! Apparently twenty butts will soon be displayed in a special hanging glass case right here, in the room and a half. A clear sign that the cult of Brodsky is alive and well.

A short walk from the House of Muruzi we find another exhibition dedicated to Brodsky. In contrast to the Room and a Half it boasts hundreds of his personal items (to be continued).

About the Author
Maria Rubins is a Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at University College London. Born and raised in Russia, she studied at Saint Petersburg State University. Later she moved to the USA, where she received her Ph.D. from Brown University. Her books include Crossroad of Arts, Crossroad of Cultures; Russian Montparnasse; and Redefining Russian Literary Diaspora, 1920-2020. She has translated into Russian novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, Judith Gauthier, Irène Némirovsky and Arnaud Delalande and contributed to various media outlets, including BBC, Radio Liberty, NTV, Voice of Russia, Los Angeles Review of Books, Mosaic, The New Review, and Zvezda.
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