In 1954 a small a group of young scholars with Russian roots, together with Russia enthusiasts led by Maria Kullmann, set up Pushkin Club in a private house at 24 Kensington Park Gardens. The aims of the club were:
to be a place of meeting for people of all nationalities who are interested in Russian culture;
to provide lectures, concerts and readings on all aspects of Russian culture and share opinions in an atmosphere of freedom;
to give the opportunity to those who study the Russian language to develop their practice in a friendly environment.
Maria Kullmann belonged to an established Russian family, most of whose members were either doctors or priests. Her father Mikhail Zernov was a celebrated Moscow surgeon, her grandfather was a bishop in Moscow, and one of her brothers, Nicolas, became a lecturer of theology at Oxford University. Maria’s husband Genrich Kullmann was a distinguished Swiss lawyer who worked with the League of Nations and whose last appointment was that of Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. Kullmann’s house attracted many remarkable guests of different nationalities, and she also offered a few affordable rooms for students.
Kullmann and her peers believed that informal friendly meetings between young people from different countries and of different origins would help improve international relations. Freedom of speech was claimed as a fundamental rule of these meetings. From the very beginning Pushkin House was a politically independent organisation and it adheres to this principle to this day.
Photograph of the house at 46 Ladbroke Grove
In 1956 Pushkin Club moved to a newly acquired building - 46 Ladbroke Grove - that became known as Pushkin House and where it stayed until the move to Bloomsbury in the 2000s.
The first decade of Pushkin House was fascinating and intense, featuring internationally acclaimed scholars, artists and writers, all of whom considered their participation in the Pushkin Club programme as a matter of great importance. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997) not only contributed regularly, he also helped with the development of Pushkin House and helped secure grants from The Humanitarian Trust.
Among the prominent western scholars speaking at Pushkin House were Professor of English Literature at New College Oxford, Lord David Cecil, Professor of Yale University, Victor Erlich, acclaimed theoretician of culture, George Steiner. Prominent translators such as Sir Cecil Kisch gave talks at Pushkin House as well as the Professor of Russian and Balkan History at Christ Church Oxford, Dmitry Obolensky, Prof. Dr. Friedrich Scholtz and many others. It is notable that no evenings were dedicated to the subject of the Russian monarchy.
A significant portion of the Pushkin House calendar was given over to evenings of Russian literature, most frequently dedicated to Pushkin and Dostoevsky, while many other evenings reflected on current events in literature in Soviet Russia. For example, in November 1958 Pushkin House held a Symposium on Boris Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’, only a few weeks after the book was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature, and the prosecution of its author by the Soviet authorities began, leading to Pasternak declining the award.
The culture of the Russian Silver Age was brought to Pushkin House by eminent representatives. One of the principal dancers of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, Marie Rambert, the founder of the acclaimed Rambert dance company, was a committed visitor to Pushkin House. She also participated in its programme, giving talks about Russian ballet and Vaslav Nijinsky, a close personal friend. Nijinsky's dance partner Tamara Karsavina also attended Pushkin House and gave talks there, sometimes accompanied by Arnold Haskell, the dance critic who at the time was the Director of Sadler’s Wells. Another distinguished visitor was the head of ballet at Opéra de Paris, the former principal dancer of Ballet Russes, Serge Lifar. There were other remarkable guests from the USSR, such as ballerina Galina Ulanova, who visited Mstislav Dobuzhinsky at the time when he lived at Pushkin House (1956).
Photograph of Maria Kullmann
Pushkin House and the Orthodox Church
The founder of Pushkin House Maria Kullmann was one of the few women of her generation to have a degree in theology. In her youth she became personally acquainted with the philosophers of the Russian Religious Renaissance who made the journey to the West in the legendary ‘Philosophers’ Ship’: Nikolai Berdyaev (1874 - 1948), Sergei Bulgakov (1871 - 1944) and Nikolai Lossky (1870 - 1965). Their writings, as well as those of Vladimir Solovyov were explored in depth in lectures and talks at Pushkin House. Nikolai Lossky frequently visited from Paris and also gave talks.
Across the border in Soviet Russia, the works of Bulgakov, Berdyaev and Lossky were published in self-published ‘Samizdat’ form: the intelligentsia considered religious discourse as providing a theoretical platform that could inform resistance to the regime - alongside a discourse on human rights and continental philosophy.
The charismatic head of the Russian Orthodox Church Diocese of Sourozh Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) (1914 - 2003) regularly contributed to the programme at Pushkin House. He spoke on a wide variety of topics including Russian Christian thinkers and Nikolay Fedorov, the founder of Russian Cosmism. Among his lectures was one entitled: ‘On Faith and Deed’ that was published as an essay and became an influential text within the Russian Orthodox Church community, as did ‘On Russian People’s Faith’, recordings of which from the Pushkin House archive can be listened to at this exhibition. In many ways Metropolitan Anthony defined his faith and beliefs through his lectures at Pushkin House, which were to have a great influence within the Russian Orthodox Church and beyond.
Photograph of the inside of Pushkin House at Ladbroke Grove
The first exhibitions at Pushkin House featured the names of major twentieth century artists such as Leonid Pasternak, Marevna (Maria Vorobieva-Stebelska), Mstislav Dobuzhinsky and Marthe Hekimi. Many works named in the catalogues of these exhibitions are now in the collections of major museums.
The exhibition includes three theatre sketches by Dobuzhinsky from the Pushkin House collection. Two original drawings by Leonid Pasternak, generously lent for this exhibition by The Pasternak Trust, were shown at his exhibition at Pushkin House in1958. The portrait of Alexander Pushkin standing on cliffs looking over the Black Sea, a town visible in the background (likely to be Odessa, the city where Leonid Pasternak was born) was on long-term loan, adorning the room in the old Pushkin House in Ladbroke Grove.
In the 1950s Mstislav Dobuzhinsky gave nine lectures at Pushkin House on various subjects: from the World of Art to Russian architecture, from Dostoyevsky in the work of Stanislavsky, to Vyacheslav Ivanov. Another contributor to the programme was Andre Grabar, a leading scholar of Byzantine and medieval Russia who was visiting from the United States. The first female curator of Tate Gallery Marie Chamot regularly read lectures on the history of Russian art.
In 1965 a prominent art collector, Director of the Grosvenor Gallery, Eric Estorik, gave a talk entitled: ‘Emerging Talents in Contemporary Russian Art’ at the time when an exhibition by Oskar Rabin was taking place at his gallery. This exhibition was the first ever one-man show of the then young artist, who was later to become a leading figure in the unofficial art scene in Soviet Russia.
Visitors from the USSR
Although Maria Kullmann and her fellows were mostly fond of Russian culture of the Silver Age, they were also interested in contemporary Soviet culture and did all they could to learn about it, subscribing to periodicals and seizing every opportunity to host visitors from the USSR, mostly poets, writers, actors and theatre directors. This, despite the prevailing hostile attitude towards the Soviet Union at that time in the UK. In fact, to Kullmann, this made it even more important to keep cultural channels open.
On 16th June 1965 the poet Anna Akhmatova (1889 - 1966) visited Pushkin House, accompanied by Isaiah Berlin. She wrote in the guest book: ‘Как бы остаюсь с вами (As if I remain with you)’ and presented her photograph. The following year, after Akhmatova’s death, Pushkin House organised an evening in her memory as well as a series of lectures.
In 1960 the Soviet writers Konstantin Fedin and Alexander Tvardovsky visited London and were invited to give talks at Pushkin House. Both were acclaimed Soviet authors praised as pillars of Social Realism. However, Tvardovsky, as the editor of the Soviet Union's most influential literary journal Novy Mir, was also the original publisher of ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Solzhenitsyn, while Fedin had belonged to the ‘Serapion Brothers’ group in the 1920s and ardently defended the writer’s right to freedom of expression. At the end of the evening, when the floor was opened to discussion, they were addressed by the 90-year old Alexander von Meyendorff (former member of the first Russian Parliament - Duma) with a speech on the importance of freedom in literature. This spontaneous interaction on the subject of freedom of speech and human rights is typical of Pushkin House.
On 3rd July 1961 there was an evening of Soviet literature featuring Irakly Andronikov, Vsevolod Ivanov, Boris Polevoi and Alexey Surkov. Surkov was a talented poet and critic but also - a bureaucrat, who took part in a campaign against Boris Pasternak in the Soviet press, and at the same time supported another politically prosecuted poet, Joseph Brodsky.
One of the most cheerful evenings held at Pushkin House was with Korney Chukovsky on 2nd June 1961 when he spoke about Anton Chekhov and Alexander Blok, following which he read from his own poetry.
Konstantin Paustovsky gave a talk entitled ‘Literary Reminiscences’ on 7 October 1964, and was met with admiration not only for his talent as a writer but also for his independence and free-thinking intellect: he had lived through the darkest years of Stalinism without praising Stalin once. In the following year the writer was nominated for the Nobel Prize (the prize was awarded to Mikhail Sholokhov). In February 1966 he was one of 25 prominent figures from science and the arts who signed a letter to the 23rd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, appealing against re-Stalinization in the wake of the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial.
Photograph by Sydney Weaver from a trip to the USSR in the 1960s
Trips to the USSR
Pushkin Club organised a few tours to Russia between 1960-1963 - mostly for young people who were open to camping and traveling by bus. The talks at Pushkin House about these trips accompanied by exhibitions of photographs and slideshows were very popular and lively. Unfortunately, none of these photos or slides were preserved in the Pushkin House archive. However, new research into the archive revealed an interesting collection of black and white photographs taken by Sydney Weaver from a trip to the USSR in the 1960s.
Taken by the curious lens of a man travelling to the USSR determined to understand its people, they also show the people looking back at the foreign tourist. Intense, friendly and sometimes reserved, the exchange of looks bridges two worlds that were in fact very different from each other.
Transition to Bloomsbury: a new era for Pushkin House
In the first decade of the 2000s, the decision was made to move Pushkin House into the main flow of London's cultural life by moving it to the 'Museum quarter' in Bloomsbury. The Board of Trustees led by Simon Franklin sold the house in Ladbroke Grove and purchased 5a Bloomsbury Square. For the first time Pushkin House had a dedicated venue for exhibitions and events that could be open to the public every day of the week, throughout the year. Under its first Director Julian Gallant, the house quickly developed a flourishing programme of exhibitions, concerts, lectures and screenings when it opened in 2006. The move coincided with a significant influx of Russians and Russian-speakers to London. Pushkin House soon became an umbrella organisation for many Russia-related clubs and organisations.
The Russian Language Centre, a separate organisation run by Frank Althaus, were secured as a tenant on the top floors of the building, along with Friends of the Hermitage.
Pushkin Club, the body that had done the programming at Ladbroke Grove, remained an integral part of Pushkin House following the move, programming two events per month. Pushkin Club continues to programme events mostly related to literature, poetry, translation and human rights. At the same time, the Directors of Pushkin House began to programme themselves, leading to a packed timetable of cultural happenings. Thus began the transition to a fully-fledged arts centre.
Major figures and events that have taken place at Pushkin House since the move include a pavilion by Alexander Brodsky on Bloomsbury Square to mark the centenary of the Russian revolution; an exhibition of murals by Victoria Lomasko and a solo show by Laura Footes of works illustrating The Master and Margarita. There have been concerts by leading musicians, lectures and talks from leading translators and writers such as: Anthony Beevor, Catriona Kelly, Rosalind Blakesley, Rosamund Bartlett, Elizabeth Wilson, Gabriel Prokofiev, Alexander Karpeyev, Boris Dralyuk, Robert Chandler, Andrew Spira, Alexander Mozhaev, Sergey Nikitin, Alexander Osipov, Alexei Ivanov, Guzel Yakhina, Galina Yusefovich, Renata Litvinova, Boris Akunin, Zinovy Zinik, Anatoly Vasiliev, Artemy Troitsky, Teatr.doc, and many other outstanding cultural commentators, figures and groups that are too many to list here. (Please see the website for our archive of events).
Pushkin House remains an independent organisation, financed by the subscriptions of its Friends and donations from supporters, as well as ticket money and rental income. The house now has a curator for exhibitions, a music curator and a staff of seven, as well as many volunteers, all helping deliver events.
In 2013 the then Chair Andrew Jack launched the Pushkin House Book Prize, awarded for the best non-fiction book about the Russian-speaking world published in english in the preceding year. Now in its seventh year, the prize has become a prestigious and well documented annual event.
The House has a dedicated concert programme and is preparing to launch the first Russian-London music festival in 2021. In 2020 a poetry translation fellowship will be launched with Queen's College, Oxford. In 2019 Pushkin House launched its Learn and Participate Programme, a series of workshops and masterclasses from leading experts in their field, looking at different aspects of Russian culture.
Pushkin House is an outward-looking organisation that collaborates with organisations in and outside of Russia, delivering a programme that continues to enthusiastically explore and celebrate Russian culture. We believe that this process of sharing enriches all parties involved.