This is one of the many questions that visitors to Pushkin House ask. In this Panel discussion making up part of events marking the 65th anniversary of Pushkin House, three people who have been involved with Pushkin House at critical times in its history, give behind the scenes insights into life in a Russian cultural centre in the middle of London, from its inception in 1954 to the present day. Irina Kirillova, Secretary of Pushkin House in its early years and Simon Franklin, Professor of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, who was Chair of Pushkin House at a crucial time when it moved from Notting Hill to Bloomsbury Square will be joined by the present Director, Clem Cecil.
Pushkin House was founded in 1954 in London as a place to celebrate, share and explore Russian culture in an informal atmosphere, with freedom of speech as a core principle. It was founded and run by a group of Russian emigrées led by Maria Kullman (1902 - 1965) whose ethical impetus influenced the early programme of Pushkin House.
Its foundation coincided with the beginning of the Thaw, a short period of liberal change in Soviet Russia following the death of Stalin. It was an exciting time that saw the creation of a multitude of non-official modernist movements in art, music, literature and film. The Russian intelligentsia on both sides of the Iron Curtain was full of idealistic hopes.
The early decades of Pushkin House were lively and intense with remarkable participants from the UK and Russia, such as artists Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Leonid Pasternak and Marevna, philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Nicolas Lossky, Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom), ballerina Tamara Karsavina, art historian Andre Grabar, and historian Prince Dmitry Obolensky. Talks were also given by prominent British specialists and academics, such as the Director of Sadler’s Wells Arnold Haskel, curator of Tate Gallery Marie Chamot, Professor of English Literature at New College Oxford Lord David Cecil, Professor of Yale University Victor Erlich, and acclaimed cultural theoretician George Steiner. Prominent translators such as Sir Cecil Kisch also gave talks.
Philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997) contributed regularly to the programme of Pushkin House and helped with its programme. On 16th June 1965 poet Anna Akhmatova (1889 - 1966) visited Pushkin House, accompanied by Berlin. She wrote in the guest book: ‘Как бы остаюсь с вами’ (As if I remain with you).
A new period at Pushkin House began in 2005 when the House moved to its present venue on Bloomsbury Square. From amateur club it grew into a professionally operating arts charity, holding several events per week and regular exhibitions with emerging and celebrated artists, and commissioning new work. The programme continues to be based on the organisation’s original principals: the celebration and exploration of Russian culture, freedom of speech and political independence.
Part of our programme dedicated to 65th anniversary of Pushkin House.
Irina Kirillova MA, MBE, is Fellow and Reader Emerita of Newnham College, Cambridge, where she taught Russian literature, specialising in Dostoevsky. Her book 'The Image of Christ in Dostoevsky's Writing' was published in Moscow in 2010. She has also lectured extensively on Dostoevsky in Russia. She is International Trustee of the State Library of Foreign Literature, Moscow and was a director at St. Andrew's (Ecumenical) Trust from 1999 to 2013.
Simon Franklin is Professor of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK. He is a Fellow of Clare College. In 2007 he was awarded the Lomonosov Gold Medal by the Russian Academy of Sciences for outstanding achievements in research in Russian history and culture. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a winner of the Alex Nove Prize. His many publications include The Russian Graphosphere, 1450-1850, (ed., with Katherine Bowers) Information and Empire: Mechanisms of Communication in Russia, 1600-1850, and (ed., with Emma Widdis) National Identity in Russian Culture. He is former Chairman of Pushkin House.
Clem Cecil is a Russian-speaking specialist in language, literature and architectural preservation, with many years’ experience working in, and with, Russia, initially as correspondent for The Times, then as co-founder of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society. She has co-edited four books on the threatened architectural heritage of Moscow, St Petersburg and Samara. From 2012 to 2016 she was the Director of SAVE Britain’s Heritage and SAVE Europe’s Heritage. She has been Director of Pushkin House since 2016.