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Moscow Encore

A nobleman’s palace and theater set the stage for czarist entertainments.

Ostankino Palace, 1798.

When I said I was writing a piece about Ostankino, Moscow friends nodded their heads sagely and assured me that it was very beautiful, but almost none of them had been there. Western friends, including several who have lived in Moscow, had in most instances not even heard of the place. I went to Ostankino early on a Sunday morning in November. It was a cold day, but the snow had stopped and the sun was streaking through the clouds. I got off the metro at VDNKh, near the Exhibition of Economic Achievements, and walked, as I had been instructed, toward a 1,770-foot-high television tower. The streets of the area had flooded, and I found myself sinking into mud among overbuilt housing development of the Brezhnev period. The only clear ground was in the middle of the trolley tracks, where I made my way slowly, jumping aside on the rare occasions when a trolley actually came.

Ostankino itself is something of a surprise in this landscape. I rounded a dilapidated corner where two old women were arguing over a cucumber and found the house in front of me, elegantly neoclassical, stuccoed in pink, with a small older onion-domed chapel about 400 feet beyond the main structure. Ostankino is now closed for restoration, and the first two times I telephoned I was told unconditionally that there was no access to the place. But the third time a young woman named Yelena Vdovina, scientific consultant to the museum, agreed to make the necessary arrangements for me. “You’d better come in the morning,” she said. “We have no lights in the house, and you can’t really see anything once the sun crosses the sky. Come on Sunday – I’m responsible for the house then.” And so on that Sunday morning I presented myself at the chapel (which is now a museum of objects from the house), and Yelena Vdovina, wearing a Chinese coat of brocaded blue silk, picked up a massive set of keys and led me across what was once a garden.

Inside, we put enormous felt slippers over our shoes to protect the famous parquet of Ostankino. Preparations for the restoration have been under way for over a year now; small samples have been cut out of various walls, and the structure has been analyzed and tested and diagramed. The house is completely made of wood – it is a sort of enormous log cabin covered in plaster. The conservators believe that it would be a mistake to introduce electricity; they worry that the house might crumble or go up in flames. Though there is a heating system, it has not been used in two hundred years, and it too is kept off for fear of disaster. I saw Ostankino in the dark and in unspeakable cold – in, that is, the conditions endured by the conservators now working on the building.

At the beginning, these activities were undertaken at Kuskovo, the old country home of the Sheremetev family. But the fashion at that time was for productions with elaborate sets and fantastical decorations, and the stage at Kuskovo was insufficiently deep for these. So after Nikolay Petrovich’s father died and the count took charge of the family estates, he decided to build a house at Ostankino equipped with a great theater. It was constructed by serfs working in some instances from the plans of European architects and in others from their own. Under the watchful eye of the count, these men gilded, carved, and used every other technique for embellishment, producing a house that combined that massive grandeur of Russian architecture with all the delicate refinement of Western Europe. On plaster and wood, they created expanses of faux marble and malachite, inlay and gold, and they draped the whole thing with the richest fabrics that art could then contrive. The furniture was produced by the workshop of Paul Spol, a Frenchman who had moved to Moscow.

Ostankino became a center of the cultural life of Moscow in its time, and the serfs of Count Sheremetev became famous across the land. The most beautiful and gifted of them all was an actress who was born Praskovya Gorbunova (Daughter of the Hunchback), later took the name Kovalyova (Daughter of the Blacksmith), and ultimately became Zhemchugova (The Women Pearl). Nikolay Petrovich saw her on his own stage and was smitten with love; they were married in 1801 and ruled over a very brief but magnificent court life.

The entertainments at Ostankino must have been extraordinary. You enter the house and proceed up a grand staircase to a series of reception chambers before passing through the great picture gallery, which holds the count’s vast collection (hidden during Napoleon’s invasion), and at last arriving at the enormous theater around which the house is built. Everything in this room is changeable: the floor can be removed; the ornately decorated ceiling can be dismantled; the columns can be taken away; gaps can be opened and closed in the small rotunda to change the acoustics; the balconies can be brought forward or eliminated altogether. When a play was being performed, the audience descended a staircase and sat in a sunken area at the front of the room. Guests of honor sat on raised and balustrade platforms at each side, and Nikolay Petrovich himself sat in a loge at the door.

The stage is easily twice as large as the area reserved for the audience. Here the serf actors would perform and serf musicians, trained in the best European traditions, would play the latest music, of which the count was regularly informed by an acquaintance at the Paris Opera. After the performance, he would lead his guests into the Egyptian Pavilion, off the main body of the house, where they would eat dinner to the accompaniment of other serf musicians. Then they would return to the theater, which would have been entirely reconstructed into a ballroom, and dance into the night.

The performances and receptions ceased after the countess died in 1803. Serf theaters became unfashionable, and for a hundred years no one used the house much. In essence, Ostankino was not touched from the time of Napoleon’s departure until the revolution. In 1917, Nikolay Petrovich’s grandson, more clever than most of his peers, donated the Sheremetev properties to the new Soviet state so that they might be enjoyed by the people. It is fortunate indeed that he did so. Osatankino and Kuskovo are among the several great houses of Moscow – and Nikolay Petrovich’s grandson among the only aristocrats – to have survived the revolution. His great-granddaughter is allegedly living in Moscow today.