In the spring of 2015, I moved from my home in Cambridge, England across town to the Ancient India and Iran Trust, the converted home and library of deceased linguist Harold Bailey. The Trust was both my residence and my workplace, where I spent every day combing through the collections of one of the greatest figures in my field, hoping only to make my own small contribution to his lifetime of work.
Until this summer, I might have assumed Cambridge to be the most cultured place I had ever been. Moving halfway across the world to the historical and storied St. Petersburg, I did not know that I had found a city where the Ancient India and Iran Trust might blend in to rather than punctuate the cityscape. After all, neither Frommer’s nor Fodor’s, could have communicated the cultural richness of a city -where historical churches dot every corner and a song named after Omar Khayyam would rise to the top of the pop charts.
The apartment museum is a curious thing. Peppered throughout St. Petersburg, these unobtrusive structures are, above all, a reminder that this is a city steeped in history, one where every raion housed a literary stalwart and every ulitsa birthed a regional governor. Intended as interactive biographies, the apartment museum either captures or reconstructs the moment of the subject’s death, preserving their possessions and living conditions as closely as possible.
Some of those commemorated by apartment museums, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anna Akhmetova, are well known in the West, as their works have played a formative role in shaping outsider perceptions of Russia. Other subjects of the apartment museum are less known, even in other cities throughout Russia. One such man lived and died only blocks from my current apartment. That man, Lev Gumilev, led a life of interest to many, regardless of background.
Lev Gumilev is as famous for his family pedigree as his own work. Born in 1912 to Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmetova, two prominent Russian authors, Gumilev was seemingly fated for greatness before Stalin’s purges claimed his father. After some trouble with the Soviet authorities and even a stint in the Red Army, Gumilev himself was arrested and eventually re-arrested. While the precise reasons for his arrests remain unclear, it is perhaps only due to the intervention of his mother and her literary flattery toward Stalin that Gumilev escaped prison unharmed.
Upon his release, Gumilev engaged scholarship largely unknown in America, taking as his subject the various Turkic, Iranian, and Mongol ethnic groups that inhabit the Russian Steppe and Central Asia. Gumilev’s controversial, politically charged findings are not of interest here. Rather, I am interested in the intellectual approach of one of the leading figures in my field, the precise intellectual approach so painstakingly preserved in Gumilev’s apartment museum.
Inside Gumilev’s apartment, the visitor can touch the patched books from which Gumilev drew his theories and the patched chairs in which he read them. Just a few hundred square feet in size, intellectual and historical richness pervades every place in the museum. Although I could follow little of the curator’s sophisticated tour, inside the Apartment Museum of Lev Gumilev, I felt I was in a place both historical and relevant, academic and accessible.
There is something strangely humbling and inspiring about stepping into the lives of those who have achieved your aspirations. In the Apartment Museum of Lev Gumilev, St. Petersburg reminds me that I have a ways to go yet.
By: Kayhan Nejad