Some 600km south-east of Moscow, the Penza Region is stamped on Russia’s area with grand estates that have inspired Russia’s greatest writers. But some places which have roused poets’ passions in the past have a shaky future.
Tarkhany: Where poetry rests
A modest country seat that in Tsarist times survived on farming and small-scale manufacturing, Tarkhany happened to be the childhood home of one of Russia’s most legendary figures.
Mikhail Lermontov was a child prodigy, a fiery-tempered soldier, womanizer and finally a great Romantic poet and novelist who died in a duel at the age of 27.
While little of his work was composed in Tarkhany, Lermontov is buried in the family mausoleum.
“The government has recognized the historical significance of this place. We are just so lucky. For the past few years, we have been allowed to flourish,” says Nadezhda Potapova, a deputy director at the Tarkhany Museum.
As in the 19th century, Tarkhany has become the main employer for adjacent villages.
Some 200 people look after the Tarkhany estate. Direct descendants of the serfs who worked here dress up as their ancestors for their job. Some get to play the aristocrats for the benefit of tourists.
With visitor numbers are growing, there is no need for the estate to turn a profit.
While the Lermontov family home may be in as good a state as when the poet himself was living here, there are other houses in the area which are just as important architecturally, but which are not getting the same care and funding.
Kurakino: Just do it yourself
Kurakino can be called one of Russia’s grand palaces. At least, it used to be.
In its heyday in the 19th century, Kurakino was a self-sufficient cultural centre for the benefit of one man – the “Diamond Prince”, Aleksandr Kurakin.
In Soviet times, it served as a warehouse and a home for dementia sufferers before falling into disrepair. Neither the government, nor any private investors will invest the millions of dollars needed to rebuild it.
“On the one hand, you can’t turn all of these estates into museums, and the lifestyle they supported has gone. On the other, if the situation continues as it is, they will simply disappear. And that is a fact,” sighs Dr. Larisa Rasskazova, chief of museums of the Penza Region.
But the villagers of Kurakino have decided to fight the inevitable.
Going from house to house to collect donations and relying entirely on volunteers, they have vowed to restore the estate building-by-building, starting with the cemetery chapel.
“We are not professional restorers; we have little money for materials. We only do what we can. But we do not want to be thought of savages, who do not understand where we live. We want to honor our ancestors,” says Aleksey Kurbatov of the Kurbatovo Village.
They face a daunting task. But if they do not rebuild it, no one else will.