Paustovsky the photographer: What the famous writer captured with his camera

June 3

On Konstantin Paustovsky’s birthday, we are contemplating his photographic works from the Konstantin Paustovsky Museum collection – photographs with river panoramas, old monasteries, narrow-gauge rail cars, and geese near a marketplace…  We will learn what tied Paustovsky to the Ryazan Region and which kinds of transport he liked best.

A story coauthored by and Mosgortur Agency.

A childhood infatuation

Paustovsky became interested in photography as a child. His father liked taking photographs, and it was the son’s chore to develop the film.  Several rolls of film were left in the father’s desk until the boy’s mother found them while dusting before an approaching holiday. She gave them to Konstantin whereupon he shut himself inside a dark closet and developed the film.

“It was an interesting job because I could never guess what would be on the film. Besides, it was fun that no one, even my mother, dared to enter the closet while I was developing. I was cut off from the world. The familiar sounds – the clinging of plates, the clock chimes, maid Liza’s shrill voice – were almost inaudible in my closet,” the writer reminisced in The Story of My Life.

As an adult, Paustovsky took the camera along as he travelled around the country, shooting landscapes, churches, and local people. He liked travelling and took to the road frequently, since he believed that wandering was a source of firsthand knowledge and impressions and that it opened new vistas of beauty. He took many photographs in his life, but most of them were lost. His best known photos date to the 1930-1940’s, when he gave up journalism and completely devoted himself to writing.

Marketplace, stalls. Photo by Konstantin Paustovsky, 1920-1930’s.


Paustovsky often photographed the Ryazan Region’s Meshchera area, which he extolled in his story The Meshchera Land. The local landscapes were a source of inspiration for the writer. On the face of it, there was nothing special about Meshchera – pine forests, lakes, meadows… but it had a powerful pull. “It’s very unpretentious, like Isaac Levitan paintings.  But, like those paintings, it illustrates the charm and variety of Russia’s nature that might not be immediately evident at first sight,” Paustovsky wrote.

The writer turned up in the village of Solotcha known as the gateway to Meshchera in September 1930. He liked the beauty of the local hinterlands so much that he revisited the area, where it was so nice to work and rest, for years thereafter, both alone and with his family. At first he stayed at a local tailor’s, Maria Kostina, who, according to Paustovsky’s son, Vadim, was very religious and active in the Solotcha church parish. Later Paustovsky moved to a former steam bath at a farmstead owned by engraver Ivan Pozhalostin. He later bought the entire farmstead.

“I found the biggest, simplest and most ingenuous happiness in the wooded Meshchera area. This is the happiness of being close to your land, of concentration and inner freedom, of favourite thoughts and hard work,” he wrote in 1967 in his autobiography A Few Fragmentary Thoughts.    

Solotcha was his summer and autumn residence for ten years. He worked there and entertained visitors like Rouvim Fraerman, Konstantin Simonov, and Arkady Gaidar. His guests often worked at Solotcha, went fishing with their host, admired the local sights, and even buried treasures. Arkady Gaidar, for example, left a sealed bottle with a letter to posterity in the hollow of a tree. It has not been found to this day.


Paustovsky said that Central Russia was the inspiration behind most of his works. The collection of short stories, The Summer Days, the short story, A Telegram and the stories The Meshchera Land and The Tale of Woods are based on his travel impressions.

“My time in Central Russia proved the happiest and most productive experience for me…  It captured me at once and for good.  My intuition told me that it was my true homeland, and I felt that I was Russian down to my last vein,” said the foreword to his autobiography The Faraway Years.

 Many of his photographs are also devoted to Central Russia: landscapes in the Vladimir Region, the towns of Suzdal and Yuryev-Polsky, the river Kamenka, old monasteries and the everyday lives of local people.

He liked the marketplace in Yuryev-Polsky so much that he took a series of photographs of the stalls. His snapshots artfully convey the market atmosphere:  farmers exchanging gossip in expectation of customers, with crates and baskets placed in stalls, women sitting on the ground and discussing the latest news, geese strolling in the lane between the stalls…

There are many photographs of monasteries: The Nativity Monastery in Solotcha, the Monastery of the Saviour and St Euthimius and the Protection of the Theotokos Monastery in Suzdal, all of them dating back to the early 1930s. Viewers can only guess when he visited Suzdal, but the photograph was taken from the bridge over the flood-swelled Kamenka. 

Trains and riverboats

His photographs often feature ships, trains and riverboats. During his river and sea voyages, he made new acquaintances and found true friends. There were adventures too, like a gale he experienced off the coast of Novorossiysk.

In 1956, when Paustovsky was on a European tour, he met writer Leonid Rakhmanov. He met him on the deck of a cruise liner, with the two men immediately catching sight of each other because both were holding the same book by Ivan Bunin. Legend has it that even their bookmarks were on the same page.  Soon they were talking like old friends. Later, they did not meet very often, but they wrote letters and gave books to each other. This friendship lasted until Paustovsky’s death.

“Konstantin Paustovsky  was an exemplary travel companion – kind, high-spirited, considerate, agile beyond his years, easily taken to any adventure if it promised new discoveries and experiences – but with the provison that it could not violate, not even by a hairbreadth, the moral rules he had established for himself,” said Rakhmanov in describing the voyage that had brought them together in his essay “Travelling with Paustovsky.”

But ships were not the only thing he photographed. Since his early years, he was fascinated by the romance of railways. As a boy he often escaped to a nearby railway station to see the trains come and go in company of the station master. He had many railway-related recollections too: his own father was a railway statistician; he served on hospital trains and, of course, travelled by rail all over the country.   

“For me, everything related to railways is still steeped in the poesy of travel, even the smell of coal from a locomotive’s furnaces… If I could, I would settle in a corner of any freight car and would roam the land in it. What nice days I had at rail yards, where freight trains stopped for hours,” he wrote in The Story of My Life.

A photograph dated to the 1920-1930’s shows a narrow-gauge rail car. One of these took him to the Meshchera area or back home from his travels. Once, Paustovsky and a friend were taking a narrow-gauge passenger train back from an angling expedition. While en route, the passengers started singing songs. The performance as a whole was amateur, but one of the voices, oddly, was strong and professional. The singer introduced himself as a book-keeper from a nearby collective farm. But when Paustovsky’s friend tried to persuade him to go to Moscow to audition for the conservatory, he apologised for playing a practical joke and confessed that he was Nikolai Ozerov, a soloist at the Bolshoi Theatre. He also recognised Paustovsky and was happy to meet the man whose books he had read. 


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