The Soviet-era Pushkin was presented as a great Russian archetype, rather than an elite romantic figure who came from and satirized the nobility. The sexual intrigue that led to his fatal encounter with a man alleged to be his wife’s lover was downplayed. “His death was made a matter of social conditions, not an erotic duel,” Sedova says. Little emphasis was placed on the personal possessions, the furnishings, the historic details of the apartment, which was reconstructed based on letters and contemporary accounts from Pushkin’s time.
Times change, and especially since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the apartment has been more focused on recreating the ambience of Pushkin’s home. But it remains resolutely a memorial, with death its main focus. A sofa on which the poet supposedly died was tested for blood, and in 2010 — with great fanfare — Russian newspapers announced that it was Pushkin’s.
The apartment visit begins with the antechamber in which Pushkin’s coffin rested, and ends with the study, in which he died. The study, filled with objects that the artist had held in his hands, is the sancta sanctorum of most apartment museums.
“The idea, when you create a memorial apartment, is to make sure that the study isn’t eclipsed by any of the other rooms,” Sedova says. So the study is the richest with objects and memorabilia: a desk where he sat, an inkwell, a letter opener he often chewed, books and the sofa.
Not every apartment museum is focused on the memorial aspect, but most are haunted to some degree. In the museum devoted to Alexander Blok (the “silver age” poet who died in 1921), a glass case with a death mask and a religious icon stands where Blok’s deathbed was, and a vase of flowers is occasionally refreshed in front of it. Even if an artist didn’t die in the apartment that honors him, loss and absence are often in the foreground. A visit to the apartment of Feodor Chaliapin, the world-renowned opera singer who left Russia in the early 1920s, features a painting of the singer that supposedly sustained a crack — discovered by Chaliapin’s daughter at the moment the singer died in Paris in 1938. A tour of the capacious and beautifully appointed apartment ends in a large music room, where the disembodied voice of Chaliapin is heard singing, a poignant reminder of the singer’s self-imposed exile during the dangerous years of Soviet repression.