Uli Zislin in his museum-apartment.

Museum of Russian Poetry in Rockville, Md.

Published: March 7, 2013

The Museum of Russian Poetry, located in Rockville, MD., just outside of Washington, DC, holds an impressive collection of Russian and Soviet literary artifacts. This small, private museum The small, niche space is packed from wall to wall with artifacts celebrating Silver Age masters like Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelshtam, Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumiylov. It is truly one-of-a-kind in its focus. But if you want to see it, you’ll have to make an appointment first with museum curator Uli Zislin. It’s only a common courtesy, considering the museum is also his suburban apartment.

Zislin, a Moscow native who moved to Washington in 1996, had a vision to share the works of Russia’s Silver Age poets with Americans, helping a new audience discover the writers whom he revered most. A poet himself, Zislin gradually began accumulating artifacts and memorabilia, growing the museum into what it is today – a collection of books, audio clips, portraits, manuscripts, and letters written to and by twentieth-century Silver Age poets,–who Zislin says were “among the most talented and brilliant poets of the twentieth century.”

Officially opened in 1997 – Zislin spared very little time before getting up and running – the Museum of Russian Poetry is now in its sixteenth year and has grown to include exhibits on music and art of the former Soviet Union, in addition to its focus on Silver Age poetry. , Zislin’s collection of original printings has been supplemented by many donors over the years. Zislin says the museum has grown so much since its founding sixteen years ago that much of what constituted the original collection is now in storage. He’s received gifts and donations from other museums, universities, collectors, and literary enthusiasts from Russia, Ukraine and other territories of the former Soviet Union. Zislin hopes eventually to see the museum get its own space outside of his apartment, as a larger space could help accommodate the entire collection – and make it easier for patrons to visit without an appointment.

The museum was re-conceptualized in 2002, adding exhibits featuring nineteenth century Golden Age poets like Mikhail Lermontov and Alexander Pushkin, as well as information on Russian composers Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. Zislin says he sees the museum expanding to cover Russian artistic culture in general. Eventually, Zislin hopes the museum might be able to offer visitors information about Russian ballet as well. For now, the museum’s focus must remain a bit limited, as it is limited to Zislin’s private living space.

One of the most unique aspects of Zislin’s museum is his collection of audio recordings. While not always of the most clear or high quality, he practically insists that visitors listen to recordings of poets like Olga Ivinsky and Anna Akhmatova reading their poetry “as it was meant to be recited.” One of the poems you can hear Akhmatova recite is her 1924 poem “Muse.” Clips like this help visitors better appreciate the rhythm of the language and the artistry of the composition. Visitors will also be able to listen to audio interviews of poet, academic, and friend of Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky, who speaks at length about his friendship with the poet, who he considered his mentor.

The museum also offers books – including some original manuscripts –by the poets of both Golden and Silver ages. Visitors will also find rarities like correspondences between the poets, letters they received, autographed books, and some out-of-print titles and translations.

Zislin also regularly organizes seminars about Russian poetry and speaks widely throughout the DC area. One of the more festive and interesting events to grow out of the museum are the annual bonfires held in honor of the memory of Marina Tsetaeva, held yearly to celebrate her birthday. The most recent bonfire brought together university professors, native Russians living in the DC area, college students of Russian language, and general literary enthusiasts to perform a mix of Russian folk songs and Tsvetaeva poems put to music.

Zislin says residents of 29 states and from 12 foreign countries have visited his museum. While the concept might sound strange, Zislin has dedicated the past sixteen years to educating Americans and visitors from around the globe about his passion and pride for Russian literary and musical arts. In order to introduce audiences to these poets, Zislin has devoted his time and literally opened his home to those looking to learn more about Russian and Soviet literature. The museum — located at Veirs Mill Rd., Rockville, MD. 20853 — is open seven days a week, but visits require an appointment. To schedule a free visit to the Museum of Russian Poetry, you can email museum@zislin.com, or call Uli Zislin at 301-942-2728.

About the author

Kristin Torres

Kristin Torres studied Russian language and literature at the University of Missouri-Columbia and at the Summer Workshop in Slavic and Eastern Languages at Indiana University Bloomington. An aspiring arts and culture journalist, she has a particular focus on Eastern European film and literature. A former intern on the Arts Desk at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. and at California and Missouri affiliates KQED and KBIA, she further developed her research and arts reporting skills as a Home and Abroad Scholar in St. Petersburg.

Program attended: Home and Abroad Scholar

View all posts by: Kristin Torres