Trio of Russian museums summons love, joy and flavors of the past

May 22

At the Museum of Forgotten Flavors, a taste of history haunts a sour-apple confection tinged red with currants.

At the red-brick Kalach Museum, a baker pulls the past out of a two-story, wood-burning oven, slipping a paddle under loaves of bread manhandled into shape as they were 400 years ago.

At the Kommunalka Museum, the ghosts are in the common dingy bathroom and crowded corridor where seven families once jostled, in the vial of Red Moscow perfume and the wide-mouthed jars of pickled vegetables, put up for a future that never came.

History in Russia favors the glorious deed, the fateful battle, the giant of culture or science. After seizing Crimea from Ukraine in March, President Vladimir Putin gave a speech dwelling on the slights and betrayals his country has suffered — by his telling, at Western hands. But much of the countervailing personal lore of how it was in generations past has faded and disappeared. A century of turmoil and ideology left little space to honor the ordinary domestic legacy, the out-of-date, the remembrance of the past.

In Kolomna, about 60 miles southeast of Moscow, Yelena Dmitrieva and her partner, Natalia Nikitina, have set out to heal that wound. Maybe, they thought, a sweet little mouthful from history, called pastila, could open an emotional door to collective memory. Now, after five years, they’ve created the three museums here, and more projects — a print shop, a jeweler’s — are in the works. They direct a staff of 135.

“These past 100 years — the majority of people were torn off from their roots,” Dmitrieva said this week. “So who am I? Where do I come from? We’re from nowhere. We have no attachment to place.”

The two women’s project aims to help Russians think about that past and those roots. They want to engage all the senses — taste, smell and touch, as well as sight and sound. In a virtual century, these museums deal in the tactile.

They get support from the foundation of the oligarch Vladimir Potanin, who sits on the board of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and has donated millions of dollars to the Kennedy Center. Their approach — seeking to provide an active experience for visitors — reflects some of the latest thinking in museums abroad, and this has brought criticism from a few of Russia’s mainstream cultural figures.

Discovering beauty

Kolomna, a city of 144,000, was once a bustling little merchant town.

In the 19th century, it became famous for its pastila. Made from hard sour apples oven-dried in low heat for three days, then mashed into an airy paste and mixed with other fruits, or herbs or chocolate, and finally formed and cooked, various types of pastila were marketed as aids to affection and cures for alcoholism.

The wife of the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky said he liked the “white stick” and the “smokva” — the one laced with red currants — the best.

Too labor-intensive, commercial pastila production came to an end in 1916, during World War I, and was then forgotten.

Five years ago, Dmitrieva and Nikitina had learned enough about pastila to resurrect it. They restored the factory where it had been made. In a nearby old house, visitors are treated to century-old furnishings, guides in period dress speaking in old-fashioned Russian, descriptions of life and customs in those days, and a sampling of the wares.

It is domestic and cozy.

“In our museum, love is the most important thing,” said Marina Belyayeva, a guide in brocade dress and with flouncy blond curls at her temples. The “amour” pastila — made with nuts, honey and poppy seeds — is sold here in an elegant box along with a florid love letter, written in the old “you-are-my-soul-and-my-heart” style.

The antique furniture is important, Dmitrieva said. “It gives us emotions. It lets us live through history.” But there’s more than that.

“We don’t have beauty in our culture,” she said.

She described Russia as a country with no aesthetics — an overstatement, perhaps, but easy to understand, given the widespread tolerance of dreary public spaces. Her hope is that reconnecting Russians to their day-to-day past could also help them find a greater joy in beauty.

Does the museum romanticize the past? Yes, and what of it? she replies. “Dwelling on good things enriches you. Dwelling on bad things harms you morally.”

Ties to the past

A few blocks away, Andrei Charukhin wrestled kalach dough into shape, following an antique recipe he found in Moscow’s Lenin Library. Leavened with hops rather than yeast, it’s formed with a handle of bread attached to what’s called the belly of the loaf.

“There are no metaphysics here,” Charukhin said, as actors carried on an elaborate debate about its qualities for an audience of reasonably entranced high school students. “You just have to be very precise.” And have big hands, he added.

The big brick oven, fired with split birch, is just like those the Russian army built in Crimea, Charukhin said — in the 1850s. Nestled up against it is an old upright piano. The bread came out of the oven and everyone got to have some.

For a good part of the 20th century, millions of Russians crowded into communal apartments — called kommunalki — where each family got one room, and everyone shared the bath and kitchen.

They were notorious breeding grounds of resentment, but visitors to Kolomna’s Kommunalka Museum tend to respond with a mixture of nostalgia and fascination.

The display casts a knowing yet affectionate eye, even on Soviet times. Rusty ice skates are stacked on radiators. Black-and-white film negatives hang from a bathroom clothesline. The stained plaster is painted to imitate wallpaper. Guests can take a whiff of blue Soviet eau de cologne.

The museum recalls the lost virtues of Soviet necessity — the thriftiness and ability to make do.

Connected to the apartment is a modern studio, for artists on short, state-supported fellowships who arrive to be inspired by the Soviet ’60s. Taken together, Kolomna’s three museums offer both a chance to overcome the rupture in Russian domestic history that the Soviet Union created and a different way of looking at the Soviet interlude itself.

It was a time of “defitsit,” when ordinary staples were in short supply. Now Russia suffers from a “defitsit” of personal connection to the past.

Through the resurrection of once-ordinary flavors, aromas, sights, sounds and feelings, Dmitrieva and Nikitina hope to stir the emotions that could help restore Russians’ sense of who they are.

Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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