"The Great Gate of Kiev" is the best-known piece from Mussorgsky's famous piano suite "Pictures from an Exhibition". I'd always assumed that the piece's title referred to to a painting of a real landmark in Kiev, but I recently discovered, after listening to a radio programme on the subject, that the gate existed only as an architectural design by the architect and painter Viktor Hartmann (see above).
Other things I didn't know were that the full title of the suite is " Pictures from an Exhibition – A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann" and that the full title of the movement about the gate at Kiev is "The Bogatyr Gates (in the Capital in Kiev)". The titles of the individual pieces allude to works by Hartmann, a friend of Mussorgsky, who died at the early age of 39. "Pictures from an Exhibition" was written soon after Hartmann's death as Mussorgsky's tribute to his late friend. Some of Hartmann's drawings and watercolours have been lost, but his design for the Bogatyr Gates is one of the surviving pictures.
The Bogatyr Gates were themselves intended to be a memorial. In 1866, the revolutionary Dmitry Karakozov tried to assasinate Tsar Alexander II. After the attempt failed, Viktor Hartmann sketched a design for a monumental gate to commemorate Alexander having survived the attempted assassination. I can't say I'm a huge fan of Hartmann's design - it's a strange compound of self-conscious gingerbread cottage ornateness and Imperial grandeur. It's the sort of royal kitsch that puts me in mind of the Prince Regent's plaything, the Royal Pavillion at Brighton.
Unlike the Royal Pavilion, The Bogatyr Gates, never got beyond a sketch on paper. It's always a possibility that some post-soviet oligarch might decide to spend a few million on making Hartmann's design a reality, but I rather hope not. In any case, the gates were a rather premature monument as, after three more failed assassination attempts, Tsar Alexander II was finally dispatched by a group of bomb-throwing revolutionaries in 1881.
Perhaps the next most famous of Mussorgsky's musical "pictures" is "Baba-Yagá (The Hut on Hen's Legs)". Baba-Yagá is a witch-like character from Russian folklore, who flies around on a broomstick or mortar, kidnapping children and living in a hut on hen's legs. The Hartmann painting that inspired this piece is of a clock made in the style of Baba-Yagá's hut - imagine a cuckoo clock resting on chicken's feet and you get the picture. The surprising thing about The Hut on Hen's Legs is that unlike The Bogatyr Gates, which never existed as more than a sketch, the fowl-footed hut is probably based on a real structure. According to Wikipedia, the fairytale description of Baba-Yagá's hut:
may be an interpretation  of an ordinary construction popular among hunter-nomadic peoples of Siberia of Uralic (Finno-Ugric) and Tungusic families, invented to preserve supplies against animals during long periods of absence. A doorless and windowless log cabin is built upon supports made from the stumps of two or three closely grown trees cut at the height of eight to ten feet. The stumps, with their spreading roots, would give an impression of "chicken legs".
To give you an idea of how a hut built on tree trunks could look like a hut on hen's legs, check out this extraordinary picture of a Sami storehouse in Sweden. It really does look like something straight out a fairytale or any fantasy novel from "The Hobbit" onwards:
Photo by M Prinke on Flikr.