The Empty House

The only inhabitant of the buildings at 3 Ulitsa Serafimovicha, a famous house in the writer's colony of Peredelkino, is a chestnut horse.


Kornei Chukovsky, the world-famous children's writer and literary critic, lived in the yellow stucco house beside the stable for 30 years. After Chukovsky's death in 1969, the house drew over 100, 000 visitors from all over the world to pay homage to a self-taught genius on whose rhymes generations of children have been raised.


Chukovsky, whose books have been translated into 25 languages, was also responsible for the first translations into Russian of Walt Whitman.


Today, the house stands empty and in disrepair. The 5, 500-volume rare book library and dozens of Chukovsky's possessions have been crated up and moved to storage.


Bureaucracy, inflation and indifference have done what no amount of official animosity succeeded in doing throughout the Brezhnev era: The museum has been closed indefinitely because there is no money to complete reconstruction begun in 1990. It would be a simple matter of $10, 000 to finish repairs and reopen the house to the writer's many admirers.


The unresolved fate of the museum is an example of the many problems facing Russia's nonprofit sector. But the Chukovsky museum's predicament is more complicated than that of the many other house-museums honoring famous Russian writers and artists. The house is in a quandary because of the dissident actions of Kornei Chukovsky's daughter, Lidia Chukovskaya, decades ago.


Lidia Chukovskaya was long a persona non-grata in the Soviet years, thanks to her outspoken support of Andrei Sakharov and many other dissidents and writers. One would expect her courage to be rewarded now, when so many self-styled 60s dissidents are reaping the rewards of earlier protests. Ironically, it is the aftereffects of her courage that have created such difficulties for the museum.


Chukovsky's granddaughter, Yelena Chukovskaya, heir to the Chukovsky property and the writer's book copyrights, is struggling to reopen the house while preserving its independence. Without any clear rules for establishing a private museum, it is a difficult process. "I feel like an ice-breaker", Chukovskaya said. "I take all the knocks myself".


The museum was granted legal status in 1973, which was retracted again in 1976. In 1984, a lawsuit was begun to throw the family out of the house by the property's legal owner, LitFond - the branch of the Soviet Writers Union responsible for subsidized benefits to writers. Though LitFond's intent was never stated officially, it was widely believed that the lawsuit was in retaliation for Chukovskaya's dissidence.


In 1990 the Soviet Culture Foundation offered to take the museum under its wing, donating about half a million rubles for repairs. The money would have been enough to complete the necessary renovations, Yelena Chukovskaya believes. But by the time workmen were hired, inflation had dwindled the amount. The workers "dismantled the roof, stole the materials and left", she said.


Chukovskaya said she has put up much of the money for repairs herself with royalties won from several successful lawsuits against pirate publishers of Chukovsky's books. She has been able to complete a new foundation and roof, but the rooms inside are still falling apart.


The building itself is still the property of LitFond, which rents it to the Culture Foundation, heir to the Soviet Culture Fund. But the foundation, which receives little state support, is strapped for finances and must solicit donations from the population and from businesses, said Tamara Andronova, the foundation's expert on Museum Programs.


Chukovskaya is now faced with the tough decision of leaving the Culture Foundation's auspices and relinquishing control of the house, allowing it to become an official state museum.


In the United States and most European countries, owners of a private collection may file for nonprofit status and become a museum. A new Russian Federation Law on Culture passed in October 1992 contains outlines for the legal status of private museums, but there is still no provision for permanent nonprofit status, said Galina Brazhnikova, the Ministry of Culture's Deputy Director for Museums.


The Chukovsky museum's plight "makes the heart ache", said Natalia Shakhalova, director of the State Literary Museum, which oversees 16 affiliated literary museums. The literary museum helped to store some of the Chukovsky possessions as well as donating "500, 000 rubles here and there - but that's not real money", Shakhalova said.


Today, Chukovskaya's options are limited: to apply for official status as an affiliate of the State Literary Museum, or find private support. That would mean searching for sponsors, perhaps publishing editions of Chukovsky's work to support the museum, or other commercial activity, a path Chukovskaya said she feels unprepared to embark upon.