Museums and keepers of heritage

Elabuga in Tatarstan, Russia, has 195 monuments and the museum reserve staff enthusiastically welcomes visitors to this historic town

by Roopinder Singh

AN enthusiastic, well-informed band of women transformed a visit to a small town in Tatarstan into a memorable one. The place they are deeply involved with is Elabuga. While it is small, 41 sq km, and has a population of 70,000, it is rich in museums — poets, artists, sculptors…all are celebrated in this city, says Tanzilya Agishina, deputy director-general for development, whose pride in her heritage is quite evident.

A rare statue of young Lenin

A rare statue of young Lenin

The confluence of the rivers Toima and Kama marks the location of this 1000-year-old city, 215 km east of Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.

Founded in 1990, the Elabuga State Historical, Architectural and Art Museum-Reserve takes care of 195 monuments of history and culture, besides objects of cultural heritage.
The central part of the city is dedicated to preserving the culture of the place, and thus, most of the museums are concentrated around this area.
Elabuga, sometimes spelt Yelabuga, celebrated its millennium in 2007. It is only natural that one walks to the Elabuga local history complex, where one is greeted by thunder and lightning, part of the special effects that trace back the origins of the city.
The museum also features fascinating artefacts, including various original documents of the merchants who made the city prosperous, as well as especially arranged show windows.
Under the guidance of Svetlana Andarzyanova, an enthusiastic local guide, one saw the evidence of urban settlements at the turn of 10th and 11th centuries. The city’s location made it a part of an important trade route.
A mosque that is a white-stone fortress indicated the faith of the inhabitants. Commerce made the city prosperous, and among the leading traders was the Staheev clan that had investments in gold and oil, besides shipping and manufacturing.
The museum has a restaurant that serves period food. The tradition of warm hospitality became clear when Tanzilya Agishina, who also holds the title of ‘Honoured Worker of Culture of the Republic of Tatarstan’ announced that, in the honour of Indian guests, a special meal with Indian touch had been prepared. A sumptuous repast of Tatar and Indian fusion followed.


Walking to the house of the famous landscape painter Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, one saw an old stone wall. Such walls came up after the fire of 1850 which burnt down thousands of wooden houses in the city. Thereafter, protective stone walls became the norm.
Shishkin’s family house is now a museum. It features a well-appointed studio, which the artist seldom used, since he painted largely outdoors.
He even slept in a corner room so as to cause the least disturbance to the household. Shishkin’s father was a rich merchant, who initially resisted his son’s calling, but later supported him. His veranda gives a wonderful view of the area around the house, most of it forested and unblemished by modern construction.
Nadezhda Durova stormed the male bastion that was the Russian army by disguising herself as a man. This daughter of a Major army was a tomboy who was raised in army barracks. She left her husband and son to join the army. She fought bravely during the Napoleonic wars and was awarded the Cross of St. George by the Tsar.
After retirement, she lived in Elabuga and wrote a memoir, The Cavalry Maiden, which was published in 1836. Her house, which was opened as a museum in 1993, is a tribute that keeps alive the memory of this remarkably unconventional woman.
Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva, a poet who is considered one of the greatest literary figures of 20th century Russian literature, also had an Elabuga connection. She spent her last days in the town. Her house was dedicated as a museum 110 years after her birth.
Her poem, recited and translated by Swetlana, showed how she continues to live through her verses. Her chiselled looks make for a magnificent bust that gazes into the sky, wistfully looking at the world that treated her so badly but celebrated her work posthumously — a fate unfortunately not unfamiliar for many artists.
As one visited various places, one felt a sense of urgency to reconnect with the history and culture of the area, after a long hibernation during the Soviet era, especially among those who are involved in the museum. No wonder, they keep drawing in visitors and winning international awards, including one by Unesco.
The statue of a man with a book in his hand seated on a bench was intriguing. This is a tribute to V. M. Bekhterev. Near it is a museum of medicine, named after the Russian neurologist and pioneer of objective psychology.
The museum staff wears medical uniforms and one can even get one’s blood pressure checked. Yes, one should certainly not miss the herbal tea that they offer, with honey produced locally. A great and refreshing way to end a treat, which shows how we can appreciate the past in a manner that is both enlightening as well as engaging.

This article was published in the Spectrum magazine section of The Tribune on October 6, 2013.

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