Trip to Russia. Day 6. Myshkin — Volga, Banya, Vodka.
— Go look around the house. It’s different in the morning, — Tanya said when I waddled into the kitchen still in my pajamas.
At night, the circle of chairs in the living room on the second floor set the mood for a conversation with a drink in hand. In the morning, it was all energy and inspiration to go out and do something.
The light in this house is so right. This light, the wood, all the tiny little details make the place cozy and comfortable. Day or night.
By the time I made it downstairs, Tanya and Sergei had already gone for a walk, made and finished their breakfast, and were cleaning the dishes.
Last night’s dinner and wooden interiors sedated me and all I wanted was to hang around this house and garden and sop up that slow calm. And feel time.
Tanya said no — the day was planned and the plan was packed. I dawdled to the best of my ability using Tom and the girls and the language barrier as an excuse not to leave as long as possible.
Outside, the house was as amazing as inside. There was something for the eye no matter where you look.
Artists who stayed here decorated the roof of the porch. Prior to restoring the Myshkin house, these artists painted part of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and worked on the reconstruction of Bolshoi Theater.
Tanya and Sergei relate to this house through their son, whose wife is the daughter of the owners. The renovator of the house, Tanya and Sergei’s in-law, Vladimir Shukhov, is a grandson of another Vladimir Shukhov, a Russian engineer and architect, the inventor of the world’s first hyperboloid structures and metal mesh roofs.
On our Day 1, we saw a shopping mall on Red Square he had his hand in. On Day 2, we walked by the Kievskaya railway station covered with a roof he designed. For 25 years, I was going to bed with Shukhov Tower as the last view of my day from my bedroom window.
Back of the house.
When Vladimir Shukhov, the grandson, acquired this land, the house was falling apart. For the most part, he preserved the original 100-year-old building but added a second floor with two bedrooms, a living room, and a balcony.
He tried to create an estate similar to those of the 19th century where artists, musicians, writers, and their patrons gathered. He planned a place for creative people to work on crazy interesting ideas — be it photography, movies, performing arts, painting, sculpture. Those plans seem to work.
And the house itself with its real Russian stove, carved window frames salvaged in surrounding villages, amazing collections of art and antique household items, tools, and utensils carries the spirit of the Russian North. Its overgrown garden, like no place else on our trip, carried that special feeling of Russian province described so accurately by Goncharov, Chekhov, Bunin, Turgenev.
My parents’ dacha came to mind. The harvest there was never lavish, mom and dad struggled with our apple trees. No matter how I loathed those dacha trips, it was fun in the morning to go outside in pajamas to pick fresh fruit for breakfast. And to see my scientist dad in his underwear with gigantic clippers “shaping tree crowns.” And to hear my country-raised grandmother sighing by the window:
— Where will the fruit grow? He chopped off all the branches.
Anyway, Tanya’s energy took us out of the magnetic house into the even more magnetic town.
First mentioned in the 15th century as a settlement, Myshkin became an official city in the 18th. It was degraded back to a village some time later and raised back to the city rank in the 20th.
Myshkin is not officially a part of the Golden Ring but somehow it became the most memorable town on our trip — a fun dive into northern provincial Russia with everything original, real, handmade.
The town is tiny but, boy, it has a lot of museums. Twenty? Thirty? More? Probably more. It seems like someone would start collecting something, not necessarily ancient or unique, and then invite strangers to visit and turn on their imagination.
This open-air Myshkin Folk Museum was put together completely by local enthusiasts without any government or corporate help.
The Folk museum has several enclaves: The City History Museum, The World’s Only Museum of Mice, The Great Vodka Master P. A. Smirnov Museum, open-air ethnographic Museum of Peasant Architecture, Museum of Unique Technology “Myshkinsky Samohod”, Linen Museum, Sheepskin Museum, Museum of Provincial Printing and Publishing, and some…
The crafts of the distant past — weaving, carving, pottery, blacksmithing — are everywhere.
Nowhere to turn without famous Russian sayings:
“A hostess warning: anyone entering the house is met with a kind word and fed to the best of her ability. The most bothersome ones are heartily sent back with the help of this laundry rasp…”
Russian birch trees in the background — just like in old fairly tale movies.
We heard a weather vane creak on a windmill, stepped into a baker’s house, and peeked into a bobyl’s house. Bobyl is a guy who vowed to never marry and to live his life on his own. This is his hut.
Everything in the Folk museum is real — rows of peasant huts, barns, domes of churches that sunk under water, chapels. They were pulled here from local neighborhoods by people trying to preserve history.
A foodcourt of olden days.
Museum of Unique Equipment “Myshkin Samokhod” houses agricultural machinery: a steam locomotive, an aircraft turbine, lemonade and sausage makers of the 19th century.
In Russia, windows were considered the eyes of the house and protectors from outside evil. Wooden weather boards placed between the upper beam of the window and the first log of the hut were rarely left without decorations. They were statements of pride, most significant elements of home decor. They were the face of the house, the best part of it covered with protective symbols. These carvings were exhibitions of artists’ skills, their individuality, tools they could afford, imagination.
Here is the Museum of Salt.
Quite a collection of salt shakers. And of course all those Russian inscriptions:
“A woman without shame is like food without salt.”
“Food without salt is like a kiss without love.”
“Drink sour, eat salty and you won’t rot after death.”
This is our enthusiastic crew exiting a little photography museum. What caused this excitement? A flash bulb?
A low door threshold and high step are no accident — as you come in, you have to bow to the place you walking into and to people inside.
￼One of the richest collection of spinning wheels is in Myshkin. Here are the boards that hold the yarn.
The heart of local spinning business: wool and linen — felt wool boots for the Russian winter, linen summer dresses or “sarafans” for the summer heat.
The equipment and templates for traditional Russian felt boots, “valenki.” Somewhere in this area of Northern Russia they used to breed a special kind of sheep, from which the wool was particularly good for valenki.
And valenki in Russia have always been important. They say: ”Once you got a pair of valenki, you can get married.”
We visited a woodturner who, in front of us, turned a piece of wood into a large goblet and a tiny one. The tiny one, called the fly or “mukha,” we got to it take home.
More about “mukha” — a few pictures later.￼
The woodturner had a pet duck which responded to a whistle, a sign she knew meant that food was coming.
In a way, Myshkin reminded me of Maine, one of my favorite places in the world. Time slowed down here. It was quiet. That calm rhythm of a small town where everyone knows everyone and all live peacefully.
It was not even all those museums, it was that peaceful atmosphere that made this town so hard to leave.
Volga embankment in Myshkin has two levels. One is high up for great views, lower one is for walks. This place really makes you want to slow down and feel time.
Salted fish. Jerk fish. Hot smoked fish. Cold smoked fish. Pickled fish. Air dried fish. You name it — he’s got it: sturgeon of all kinds, salmon, beluga, sterlet, herring, burbot, pike. And the best of them all — vobla.
They say, Volga’s tastiest fish is in Myshkin. Naturally, we bought almost one of each kind this guy had to offer.
At first, he was not happy that “American spies” were roaming around, but softened up after we gave him business.
During summer months, children help their parents carry on with trade.
Local harvest — fresh and pickled — for sale.
Myshk Inn of Myshkin.
Museum of Dolls.
In this house, Russian poet Fedor Tutchev lived during Napoleonic War of 1812 staying away from front lines. Now this is a place for gatherings of local intellectuals and it still houses some artifacts of its original owner.
Golden globes. My grandmother had these flowers all around her house in Kursk. She planted them all over my parent’s dacha. On the weekends, we carried heaps of them to our Moscow apartment. My parents carried food, tools, and important stuff. Flowers were trusted to me. Frequently, dozing off on suburban electrichka, I’d wake up with stems of my bouquet intertwined with those of another happy dachnick’s golden globes.
“V Gostyakh u Skazki” — “Visiting a Fairy Tale.” On Soviet television, it was a Saturday 3 pm show for children. My week revolved around it — that day I was running home from school not to miss it. Best fairy tale movies — “Morozco,” “Sadko,” “Kashei the Immortal,” “Maria the Craftswoman,” “Fairy Tale of Tsar Saltan,” “Barbara, the Beauty,” “Twelve Months,” “Snowmaiden,” “Snow Queen,” “Wild Swans,” “The Tale of the Lost Time,” “Stone Flower…” Stop me!
Before and after the movie, there was a babushka story teller introducing the tale and praising you for watching it to the end from the window of a wooden hut: “Here is the end of the fairy tale and those who listened to it are good boys and girls.”
This is my babushka story teller.
Five domes and the high bell tower of the 19th century Assumption Cathedral are clearly visible from Volga. In the 20th century, the cathedral went through some hard times. Many of its unique paintings and icons were irretrievably lost. But there is restoration under way. Hopefully it will return the cathedral to its former luxury and splendor.
Serfs who lived in local villages decorated these walls.
The light in Russian churches…
The staircase to the observation deck of the bell tower. Daredevils are rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the city and the Volga.
There are towns where rain really suits them. A photo session for the soul: Volga and Myshkin from the top of the bell tower.
Wooden houses and stone mansions. Volga and rain.
I did pull the clapper — “accidentally” — and the sound went up and down the Volga.
Shifting gears from church to vodka. Just how it’s done in Russia.
Pyotr Smirnov was born on January 9,1831 into the family of a serf in Kayurovo village of Myshkinsk district in the Yaroslavl region. Over time, inhabitants of this village moved to big cities in search for a better life and, like many other Russian villages, Kayurovo is now gone. Local Myshkin enthusiasts moved everything they could from Smirnov’s business into this museum.
It is at this table the story of the great Russian vodochnik, as they refer to Smirnov, is told to the tourists.
It is the story of a serf who become a millionaire, the story of success and failure, love and heartbreak. It is captivating.
Once we walked through the tasting area and settled in, we heard an emotional account of Pyotr Smirnov’s life and that of how vodka came to be.
One of a few serfs permitted to attend a local parish school, Pyotr completed his studies in two years. His father said — enough. This school became his only education. At the age of 12, the boy was considered grown up and pulled into the family business.
A year later, Pyotr was sent to Moscow to assist his two uncles who obtained manumission from serfdom and owned multiple successful businesses in the capital and the nearby town of Uglich. Their business was intoxication. Smirnovs were purchasing young grape wines from Dagestan and “bringing them up to mind,” i.e. strengthening them with spirits and infusions of roots and herbs. They called that process flavoring.
Pyotr joined the business as a runner providing valuable free labor. His pay was food, bed, and clean clothes. By the age of 16, he had become the right hand man of the owners, even though one of his uncles had six sons of his own. By 19, Pyotr made enough money — 53 rubles — to buy his own manumission.
The uncles relied on Pyotr and looked up to a bright hard working young man. Pyotr saw that and started changing the business. First, he persuaded his uncles to sever ties with Dagestan, because the wines sent from that area were getting worse and prices were getting higher. He suggested to take a chance on something new — pure alcohol.
Smirnovs purchased alcohol directly from locals who produced it in abundance from potatoes, wheat, beets, blackthorn, berries. They used it to make vodkas, cordials, infusions, bread wine. Pyotr himself developed 148 different kinds of spirits — liqueurs, sherries, champagnes, madeiras, balms, and even carbonated drinks.
One of Pyotr’s famous inventions was something that is now called Riga balm. Latvian healers created a special herbal concoction that helped the Russian czarina, who suffered from terrible migraines. Pyotr purchased the recipe and infused this concoction with alcohol. It was a huge success and the balm became fashionable in high society.
There was a special line of drinks for women — light and sweet, infused with cherries, cranberries, elderberries. The sugar percentage was high but, back then, people were happy with their weight — no matter what it was.
Men were not forgotten either. Smirnov developed 48 different vodka recipes from bitter, as they say “eye-straightening,” to sweet.
That was the time when Tsar Alexander III significantly lowered taxes for manufacturing. Low taxes and cheap raw material made a good foundation for business. Economic policies of Alexander III created quite a few Russian billionaires. And those billionaires put their money back into Russian economy. Pyotr Smirnov alone paid 6 million rubles in taxes annually, enough to support a third of the Russian Army.
Lucky in business, Pyotr was not lucky in life. He was losing his dearest people. His mother died when he was 13. At 16, he married a girl from a nearby village only to lose her three years later to a grueling birth. The baby died, too. Pyotr was heart broken and stayed single until 29.
He immersed himself in business. When Russian courts denied his appeals to become an official provider of Russian spirits abroad, he packed 8 boxes of bread alcohol and a box of wine and headed for the United States. On his own. Without knowing a word of English.
That was considered madness. The family was afraid that showing off would backfire. His heartbroken father even got on his knees:
— Don’t put us to shame. Where are you going with your pig face into a bread aisle? All enlightened Europe will be there. We are free and rich. What else do you need?
He needed recognition. And he got it. At 26, Pyotr came back triumphant. Russian vodka won its first golden medal from the United States of America, moving Italian and Spanish products to the back of the alcohol scene. He would go on to receive 32 more medals.
They called Smirnov the Russian Napoleon of spirits. Dimitry Mendeleev, the Head of the Tsars Alcohol Commission of Russia, called him The Mendeleev of Russian Spirits. Smirnov house opened trade posts in London, Berlin, Helsinki, New York, Madrid, Tokyo, Paris, becoming the top vodka exporter in the world.
Shortly after his return from the United States, Pyotr decided to buy a house in Moscow. The house he bought was expensive and quickly created a debt noose around his neck. Not the one to give up, Smirnov set to marry for money. One of his business partners, a wealthy wheat producer, had five daughters. Four younger ones were successfully married. The fifth one and the oldest was already in her 40s and not attractive. To find a suitor, her father doubled the dowry. There are men in Russia who ride without harnessing and Pyotr hustled to be the first at her hand. He showed up without a matchmaker — a bad move back in the day — and told her off the bat:
— I have no emotional attachment to you, but I do have financial problems. I am offering you a stable position in society and my hand but not my heart — it’s occupied.
He got lucky. He was facing a woman of his own kind. She was educated, bright, interesting, and with a great sense of humor. She knew his financial troubles. Everyone in Moscow knew them. All she wanted was to be a mother. They both took their chances.
— Can you give me the happiness of motherhood? — she asked.
— I will do my best.
And he did. They had nine children. And they were very happy.
She involved all her connections and that of her father to help her husband’s business. At the same time, she stayed in the shade of his glory. She never went out with him, not even once. There is not a single picture of them together.
She brought up her children to worship their father. Being 12 years older, she addressed him with the respectful “vu” as opposed of “tu” their entire life. She was in love with her own husband. She fell in love with her own husband.
For many years, she was his serious commercial supporter. When she died from tuberculosis, at her funeral he said:
— Children, 70% of my success I owe to your mother.
There are no picture of his second wife. But there are pictures of his third one — the true love of his life. At the age of 48, he married the 16-year-old daughter of his best friend he lost to suicide. For 20 years, they lived happily and had four children together.
His third wife was a little girl when she lost her father. Pyotr opened an account in her name to support his friend’s child. The girl went on to become an award winning equestrian, a piano virtuoso, impeccable fencer. When, later in life, Smirnov met her and they fell in love, he never told her about his role in her upbringing. He thought it was unnecessary and did not want her to feel obliged. She found out about it only after his death.
Pyotr’s older children abhorred his young wife for taking place of their mother. She was most persecuted by Pyotr’s oldest son. He had a serious reason to hate her — he was in love with her. And he loved her until his death. Pyotr knew about it but did nothing. A woman can belong to only one person.
Unfortunately Russia hates its own heroes. The reform of 1895 hit alcohol business with taxes. The taxes were doubled and Pyotr now had to pay 13 million for a 15 million business.
The last account balance he wrote in 1898: 13 million in taxes for 19 million in earnings — 7% in profit. He died in his office from a heart attack. In his will, he wrote: “I depart this life with a heavy heart. I leave all my business in the hands of my oldest son as I took so much from him in this life. All the money I made, I leave for my wife.”
Pyotr’s oldest son was shot by the Soviets. His second son was chained by Soviets in his own house without any chance to go even to the bathroom. Through a guard, he exchanged his golden watch for vodka and killed himself with what four generations of his family built their fortunes. The third son, Vladimir, managed to escape Russia with the army of Admiral Kolchak. After a failed business attempt in France, he moved to the United States where he introduced Russian vodka to whiskey drinking Americans and became Smirnoff.
In United States, Vladimir met another Russian emigre Rudolph Kunnet. In Russia, Kunnet family supplied grain to Smirnovs back in the day. When prohibition hit, Kunnet tricked Vladimir into signing the rights to distribute Smirnoff vodka cheating him out of business. Vladimir was found dead in with a note in his hand: ”I am leaving this life voluntarily. My business is now in hands of my partner Rudolph Kunnet.”
Today Smirnoff is a major brand, distributing vodka to 118 countries around the world.
Locals truly believe that the roots of Russian drunkenness start in the town of Myshkin.
And they preserve the details.
Russian oven — the heart of every home, the foundation of every household. On ovens, they gave birth. On ovens, they slept. On ovens, they died. Ovens fed families and protected from brutal Russian winters.
Intoxication business at a glance.
Pyotr himself smoked but did not drink. He always carried two good cigars with him. People like this were referred to as those with good taste.
Vodka and bread alcohol were two different things. Vodka 19 proof and up was a cheap product. Smirnov worked only with high quality bread alcohol infusing it with his own herb recipes.
Most expensive bottles of the 19th century were made of thin glass that’s why most of them are lost, as they are easily broken. Here’s Myshkin’s collection of thin glass.
Ceramic bottles for the distribution of that special Riga Balm that cured the tzarina’s headaches.
In tsarist Russia, no one put vodka on the table in a bottle — only in a special vodka carafe. To drink it they used lafitnik — a classic Russian shot glass. To this day, every Russian owns one. My grandmother used it to measure her heart medications.
For men, a lafitnik was 50 grams, for women — 25-30 grams. The smallest lafitnik — 10 grams — was called “mukha” or a fly. They don’t make the little ones any more, but that particular size produced many special sayings carried to this day: “to swat the fly” or to take a shot, “to walk under a fly” or to walk around tipsy, “to sit and squish flies” a nice conversation in the kitchen taking shot, after shot, after shot — a favorite pastime activity in Russia since Onegin’s times.
Some sayings on museum walls that might — or might not — need extra explanation:
“Neat appearance, grammatically correct speech, and alcoholism will always be in vogue!”
“If you’re in a bad mood, add yourself some whisky. Right now! Right into your soup!”
“Mojito Myshkin style: vodka + dill.”
“Please give me a splash of some liquid adventurism!”
“Don’t expect miracles, make them yourself.”
“No matter where you go, make sure to have with you a corkscrew and a phone charger.”
“The best social network is THREEHUNDREDgrams”
“All roads lead to Myshkin.”
“Come on in, don’t be afraid — but don’t cry when you have to leave.”
“A woman is not alcohol, divorced one is not a weak one.” (In Russian language “diluted” and “divorced” are the same word.)
A little degustation of local product before we bid farewell to this house.
When we got out of the museum, the weather turned for the better and the sun came out.
The magic vibe of Myshkin town. Real provincial Russia — simple roads, simple houses, but you look at all this and feel rested.
We headed back to my favorite house for more experiences.
At home, Sergei started the mangal grill and got the kabob show on the road.
Tanya made sure that the banya got started. See that little cloud of smoke over the chimney? It’s getting hot over there.
The heart of banya. This is where the heat comes from.
It’s getting ready. There are three levels in Myshkin banya. Each next one is hotter than the lower one. It is more hot to sit on the bench than lie on it.
Tanya had all the bases covered. She brought felt covers to protect our heads and hair from severe banya heat. A special one for me — “Born in the USSR.”
And we got in. This is the start — flat on the lowest level.
Unaccustomed to the heat, we took frequent breaks in predbannik generously stocked up with food and water.
When the temperature started going down, after one of the breaks, I brought in my phone. It was still pretty hot. The thermometer is level with the lower bench. After the door was opening and closing letting the heat out, the temperature dropped to 88°C which is 190°F.
I was the only one to risk level two, first, lying on the bench, then, sitting for a few minutes. The third level was out of question.
And of course, a traditional vodka shot to round up the banya experience.
As my grandmother used to say:
— How much do I need? Not that much — just to get flirty. Not much, but often.
Every time she filled her lafitnichek, she’d say:
— Well, this is to make my eyes shine.
As we were being cleaned up and having a good time in banya, Tanya and Sergei set up my favorite table, the one under the red lampshade.
Tom was making sure the product we were served was of top quality.
Food of gods.
And Tanya’s pickles are the best pickles.
There is nothing like a table under the red lampshade in a cozy house where you feel welcome. And family and great friends from childhood around the table. Going through old memories, new troubles, laughing. Being.
After banya and dinner, we ventured out into the night Myshkin. This is a house of another Smirnov, Pavel Efremovich. This Smirnov gave Myshkin its own appeal of a rich merchant town where every house is special with elaborate wooden carvings, mezzanines, and decorations.
The boats took off. Merchants closed their carts. The moonlight trailed across the Volga.
Myshkin is a town of daylight. It’s so different in the dark — no one’s outside, no lights. You can hardly see anything.
We returned home for our last night at this magical house. Wish we could spend more time in this town, wander its streets with no hurry, and some more time around the table, under the red lampshade.