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© RIA Novosti. Alexander Utkin

Stalin’s spaniel, back from the dead

by Joy Neumeyer at 24/02/2014 12:25

The reddish spaniel stands among other breeds, from a fluffy white Maltese to a looming Newfoundland; her eyes, like theirs, are polished regularly to make them shine. This unassuming piece of taxidermy, however, was once one of Russia's most privileged pets.

In 1949, Joseph Stalin received the dog as a gift from a Belgian miner for his 70th birthday, and passed her off to his troubled son Vasily. The younger Stalin named her "Milka," and took her hunting for several years before being imprisoned after his father's death.

"The dog died of natural causes," taxidermist Valentina Kubanina said reassuringly.

Milka is one of the 400,000 animals in residence at Moscow's Darwin Museum. Founded in 1913, it might seem like a little sister to St. Petersburg and Moscow's imperial zoological museums. But its taxidermy collection is one of Russia's best, boasting hummingbirds, gorillas and elephants over a century old.

Only 1.5 percent of the museum's collection is on show to visitors. The rest lies in basement vaults, awaiting display and restoration. They may be stuffed animals, but many, like Milka, have very human stories, from imperial hunting parties to Soviet repression.


Taxidermist Valentina Kubanina

© RIA Novosti. / Alexander Utkin

Taxidermist Valentina Kubanina

The Darwin Museum's founder, Alexander Kots, was a scientist and taxidermist who taught at the pre-revolutionary Moscow University for Women. Fascinated by evolution, Kots amassed a collection of taxidermy that showed nature in all its variety, including animals that were albino, two-headed, or abnormally large or small.

On a typical weekday morning, the Darwin Museum's halls are filled with giggling school groups. In room after room, animals stand serenely behind glass, either in dioramas that mimic their natural habitats or simple white shelves.

Downstairs, however, the museum's taxidermists are doing the hard work that goes into the fluffy coats. At first, their workshop looks like an art studio; paints, brushes and wires cover the tables, and paintings adorn the walls. But curious details start to emerge: elephant ribs, a fluffy penguin, an octopus opening a jar. Near the penguin, a boulder-like hunk of chicken meat is thawing on the table.

The meat was left over from an enormous chicken given to the museum by the Poultry Breeding Institute, Kubanina said: "When they saw our chicken displays, they said we were lacking some breeds." Now that the chicken was mounted, what would happen to the meat?

"It's a matter of taste," she said. "If I've worked with an animal, I usually don't want to eat it. But back in Vladivostok, the taxidermists bragged about the different wild game they'd tried."

Kubanina is one of the Darwin Museum's three full-time taxidermists. She proudly showed off several of her recent creations, including a tiny shrew. "I spent a month on it because I couldn't figure out how to do the eyes," she said. "I finally found some miniature beads at a sewing shop." Several fish impaled on sticks stood nearby. Since fish scales lose color when they dry out, the color must be reapplied by hand.

The workshop's activities are diverse. Kubanina and her colleague Oksana Mbita Ebele had just polished some elephant ribs, which were "black with dirt," while the penguin was awaiting treatment for a wonky wing. The octopus was a "recreation," destined for a display about the sea creatures' talents.

Kubanina opened the door to an industrial freezer, which revealed a bear pelt recently brought from the Moscow Zoo. New hides always spend at least a day in the cold to rid them of maggots and other pests. The zoo has provided many items for the museum's collection, with recent acquisitions including a desert lynx, while other animals come from research expeditions.

Muscovites sometimes bring in road kill, or birds that died by crashing into windows. "Last week, I was walking in the woods and saw a dead bird, so I bagged it and brought it in," Kubanina said.


A pre-revolutionary stuffed bear

© RIA Novosti. / Alexander Utkin

A pre-revolutionary stuffed bear

Taxidermy first became popular in the early 18th century, when French and English specialists preserved birds and other small creatures for curiosity cabinets. The technique gradually evolved from literally stuffing animals with cloth to tanning their hides and shaping them on frames. Among Russia's oldest known pieces of taxidermy are Peter the Great's horse Lisetta and dog Tiran, which are on display in St. Petersburg's Zoological Museum.

Much of the Darwin Museum's collection came from the studio of Fyodor Lorentz, a German-born natural scientist active in Moscow in the late 19th century. His vaunted bears, birds, squirrels and other beasts were displayed in museums and mansions across Russia.

In the Victorian era, it was fashionable to dress up stuffed animals as humans and arrange them in cutesy dioramas (see the work of English taxidermist Walter Potter, creator of immortal scenes such as "Kittens' Tea Party"). However, Lorentz and other masters, such as Carl Akeley of the American Museum of Natural History, pioneered a new form of taxidermy, placing animals in more naturalistic poses and settings.

Contemporary taxidermy techniques differ considerably from those used in the 19th and 20th century. While the Darwin Museum's older pelts are stretched over a metal frame and filled with straw, most modern taxidermists favor lightweight polyurethane filling, which is based on a plaster cast of the animal's body. The eyes, as before, are made of glass or plastic.

Today, many taxidermists buy pre-made mannequins rather than creating their own molds, which can result in poor quality and a generic appearance. The museum, however, creates pieces to order, and prides itself on quality. Its collection is free of the unnatural posture and eyes of, say, the "Stoned Fox," the taxidermy-turned-Internet meme with an ardent Russian fan base.

"Good taxidermy is easy to distinguish from bad," collection director Igor Fadeyev said. "Are the eyes and limbs symmetrical? Is the bone structure visible? Are the paws well-defined?"

Regardless of its quality, all taxidermy is subject to dust, bugs and cracking. Pieces lacking sufficient internal support can come apart at the seams, requiring extensive repairs. "We had a polar bear that completely slumped over," said head restorer Kaleriya Voronkova, shaking her head. 


Kots donated his collection of Lorentz's works to the Moscow University for Women, where it eventually became the Darwin Museum. Taxidermist Filipp Fedulov later created many of the museum's biggest and most popular animals, including a giraffe, a gorilla, a polar bear and an elephant from the zoo. The museum's other elephant belonged to Nicholas II, who maintained it in a private zoo at Tsarskoye Selo.

Russia's last tsar was an avid hunter - so avid, in fact, that his hunting party sometimes killed hundreds of creatures on a single trip. At the end of every season, a lavishly illustrated list was compiled of the year's spoils. The 1902 report included six bears, 1,568 squirrels, 899 stray dogs, 1,322 cats, 1,255 hawks and 140 foxes, to name a few.

The royal hunters' most prized kills were stuffed, while others had their horns mounted and stamped with the imperial seal. After the Bolshevik takeover, Kots managed to attain almost 200 of these hunting trophies, ordering the seals to be removed in order to conceal their origins. Today, the horns and antlers - currently relegated to a storage room - once again bear their owners' ornate black crests.

The horn collection is only one member of the museum's extensive network of storage rooms, which is divided between mammals, birds, insects and bones. A snarling wolf, a bear and a wild boar greet visitors to the first of four mammal rooms. These are among the collection's oldest items, and a few of them still bear yellowing pre-revolutionary tags with curly script.

Fadeyev knocked on the wolf, which produced an empty thud. "The old ones are hollow," he said.

The room is filled with wall-to-wall cabinets of movable shelves, which rumbled as Fadeyev flipped through them. Inside, they contain animals of every possible color and size: red wolves, white wolves, brown wolves, black wolves. Fadeyev pointed out one of Nicholas II's stuffed bison, which was lurking on a bottom shelf.

Each of the animals has a story. There is a Chinese diplomat's stuffed tiger, which was confiscated when its owner was accused of being a spy. There is a group of dogs seized from the Germans during World War II and brought to live in the Red Army's kennel.

Black and white photographs show the museum's taxidermists diligently stuffing moose, owls, bears and other animals through the 1930s and '40s, when the country was gripped by hunger and terror. One display upstairs contains a group of rabbits from the post-war years. "I'm sure that their meat was consumed very gratefully," Kubanina said with a smile.

Voronkova has been working at the museum for 44 years. She began studying taxidermy as a schoolgirl in a pioneer club, and fondly remembers youthful expeditions to Siberia and Central Asia. "We shot the animals and drained the blood ourselves," she recalled. "Birds, mammals, whatever we could find."

Voronkova works in a separate studio scattered with glue, wire and used tea cups. She is a specialist at recreating skulls, but that morning, she was restoring some of the army dogs from the 1940s. An Afghan Borzoi was splayed out on a small table, its belly half undone. "Some wise guy cut the wires," she said. 

There is a constant stream of animals that need mending, but Voronkova is never daunted. "I know what it's like to cut up an elephant," she said with a shrug. "It doesn't get any harder than that."

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