Joseph Brodsky slept here. The grumpy neighbor of the great poet doesn't care.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Until his escape from the Soviet Union in 1972, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky lived in a drab communal apartment...


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Until his escape from the Soviet Union in 1972, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky lived in a drab communal apartment in St. Petersburg, sharing a bathroom and kitchen with three other families.

Whatever “despicable aspects of this way of life,” as Brodsky described it, his family life has served his art well, inspiring some of his most intense poems and other writings. In a well-known essay from 1985, he said that community life “perhaps has its redemptive side” because it “lays bare life: it removes all illusions about human nature”.

Living together may have been good for his poetry. But it wasn’t so good when attempts began to turn his house into a museum.

Russia loves glorify its literary giants, but even the powerful Russian state could not open a museum in an apartment shared with other residents still settled inside.

After years of effort, however, a nonprofit foundation managed to get the other tenants out. All but one.

The last resistance was 81-year-old Nina Fyodorova, who had lived in her bedroom all her life. She was determined to refuse to leave at all costs, saying, “You can’t uproot an old tree!

But a rare popular project in a country where the government aims to control all spheres of public life has succeeded where the Kremlin could not: the privately-supported Joseph Brodsky Museum has opened in the former living quarters of the poet last December.

“The state usually tries to capture the memory of such important figures as Brodsky,” said Yulia Senina, a researcher at the museum, which has become a major attraction in St. Petersburg, Russia’s cultural capital. “We are an exception.”

Brodsky died in Brooklyn in 1996 at age 55, but many longtime friends in his hometown survived him and, against all odds, dreamed of opening a museum in a space so influential for his art.

Two of these friends, Mikhail I. Milchik and Yakov A. Gordin, sought help from Russian companies and began buying rooms in the communal apartment soon after Brodsky’s death.

Communal apartments were a feature of Soviet life – and they remain common for many in the second largest city in Russia. Outside, St. Petersburg, once the great capital of a vast empire, is a city of ornate mansions. But inside many of these lavish facades, people are often crammed into dreary rooms with several families sharing the same toilets.

Brodsky, future Nobel laureate in literature, lived in a single room that had been part of a lavish row. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the long row of perfectly aligned doors were filled with bricks, creating separate rooms for families.

President Vladimir V. Putin, 12 years younger than Brodsky, grew up in a similar communal apartment just two blocks away – although he didn’t have a bath at all and had to use a communal bath nearby.

In their family of three, Brodsky’s parents assigned their son the smallest part of the room. Separating the space into two rooms was not allowed by law, but as he grew older and needed more privacy, Brodsky carved out a small space for himself by repositioning his family’s large wardrobes and pulling down a back wall in one of them, so that visitors could enter through it.

In his 1985 essay, he wrote: “Those 10 square meters were mine, and they were the best 10 square meters I have ever known.

Ten square meters is a little over 100 square feet.

After Brodsky’s death, the owner of this piece, a Georgian businessman, knew of its commercial, if not artistic, value. He asked for an exorbitant sum for it – over $ 250,000. Once Mr. Milchik increased this, the businessman increased the price by another $ 75,000.

Ten years ago, Mr. Milchik’s foundation had all the rooms in the shared apartment except that of Ms. Fyodorova. He couldn’t open the museum without acquiring it, and this last piece of the puzzle proved to be the most difficult to put together.

Even though her room hadn’t been Brodsky’s, she co-owned the common spaces the museum needed to function. And Ms. Fyodorova, naturally, was not eager to have crowds of visitors from all over the world in her kitchen as she made dinner or argued over rhymes by her bath while washing her hair. .

Whenever someone tried to sneak in, Ms. Fyodorova would scream: “Visitors are not allowed!”

Friends of Brodsky, some local government officials, and private benefactors made numerous attempts to coax Ms Fyodorova to sell, but she adamantly stayed put.

Stuck in this common dilemma, Mr. Milchik and Mr. Gordin experimented with different solutions. They installed webcams in Brodsky’s bedroom to allow people to explore the online space. It was not satisfying enough. In 2015, they convinced Ms Fyodorova to let them open Brodsky’s room for a day to celebrate what would have been her 75th birthday. The line to enter stretched around the block.

The situation remained stuck until 2017, when Maksim Levchenko, a local real estate mogul, got involved. First he tried to charm Mrs. Fyodorova. He even took out his garbage.

Ms. Fyodorova was unwavering, but she suggested another solution. An adjacent apartment was put up for sale, she said, and it would be possible to connect the two and thus allow people to enter Brodsky’s space without infringing on Ms Fyodorova’s privacy.

Mr. Levchenko bought it for $ 500,000. “You can’t measure it with money,” he said of the importance of giving Brodsky’s legacy a public space.

The museum was finally possible, but there was still a lack of objects to exhibit.

While Brodsky chose never to return to St. Petersburg, one of his most valuable possessions did. Last June, workers reassembled the sturdy brown desk he had used in Brooklyn.

Some other artifacts were kept by his hometown friends. In 1984, after the death of Brodsky’s parents, Mr. Gordin collected the poet’s books, papers and some furniture.

“In 1984, it was a deeply Soviet era, and we couldn’t imagine that there could be a museum there,” said Mr. Gordin, 85. “But I had the strange feeling that everything had to be preserved.”

In 1990, after consulting Brodsky, Mr. Gordin donated what he had stored to Russian libraries and museums. This created a problem: all the objects were now owned by the Russian state and could not be transferred to a private museum. The Brooklyn office, on loan from another museum, has been set up for a temporary exhibition.

Thanks to the poet’s friends, however, there are images of the appearance of the play before Brodsky’s emigration.

On June 4, 1972, Mr. Milchik followed Brodsky to the airport, where the poet boarded a plane for Vienna.

“Back then, farewell parties were like a funeral,” recalls 87-year-old Milchik. “We knew we would never see each other again.

Upon returning from the airport, Mr. Milchik, an arts researcher, took pictures of the play. Some photos show wilted flowers from Brodsky’s last Soviet birthday party, days before he left.

Having only a few items that belonged to Brodsky, the museum’s curators decided to keep its memorial space almost empty, although there is a library, conference room, and space for temporary exhibitions.

The rarity of the museum did not deter visitors.

Andrei Khapayev, 41, an IT specialist in Moscow, waited weeks for tickets. “This space is very important to me,” he said.

Despite the success with visitors, the future of the museum is not at all assured. Mr. Levchenko owns the apartment through which people enter the memorial hall, which in turn belongs to the foundation headed by Mr. Milchik. Their relationship? Tense.

Then there is Ms. Fyodorova. She still resides on the other side of the wall and can shut off the power at any time.

“We are doomed,” said Milchik, “to live in peaceful coexistence. “

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Newsrust - US Top News: Joseph Brodsky slept here. The grumpy neighbor of the great poet doesn't care.
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