In the 1890s the landscape painter Vasily Polenov (1844-1927) settled on the Oka River near the town of Tarusa and spent the rest of his life developing “Borok” (small pine forest in Russian), as his estate was originally called. The estate is now a museum, the only estate museum in Russia that is still run by the original family.
Last fall the Polenovo estate museum launched the first part of a series of exhibitions entitled “37/101”: 37 for the year 1937, the height of Stalin’s Great Purge, and 101 for the infamous Soviet law that required former political prisoners to live outside the 100-kilometer radius around Moscow. This law affected towns surrounding Polenovo, especially Tarusa on the other side of Oka River, which turned into a mecca for the Soviet intelligentsia.
The first exhibition in the series, called “Prologue,” is about life on the estate between 1917 and 1937. Located in the Fachwerk exhibition hall opposite the main manor house, the exhibition includes documents such as diaries, official and personal correspondence, as well as many photographs and drawings by the residents of Polenovo.
The “Prologue” show is largely about Polenov’s circle — Russia’s intellectual elite and their fate during and after the 1917 revolution. In 1937 the artist’s son and the first director of Polenovo museum, Dmitry Polenov, was arrested on charges of espionage.
Gabriel Superfin, a well-known human rights activist and chief expert for the “Prologue” exhibition, told The Moscow Times, “For me, the topic of repressions in the 1930s is always relevant. On one hand, it is important to remember the innocent victims of purges, and on the other hand you always compare those years with today. I am especially interested in the period of the Great Terror because sometimes I catch myself following current events just the way the people did on the eve of 1937.”
Natalia Polenova, director of the museum and the artist’s great-granddaughter, told The Moscow Times that, “We did a lot of research in the archives and found some very important documents we had not seen before, like the letter from Nikolai Bukharin, a member of Politburo, to VTsIK (All-Russian Central Executive Committee) asking that Polenov not be evicted from his estate. That’s when we realized that we couldn’t do just one exhibition. Instead we decided to do a series of them, each devoted to different periods of Polenovo history.”