From the time Vera Chaplina was a child, she cared for all kinds of animals. She started gaining wider attention in 1935, however, when people began seeing her around Moscow with a lion cub she called Kinuli. In 1933, she created the famous “Cubs’ Playground,” where bear cubs, dingo pups, piglets, lion cubs, and baby goats all grew up together. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova describes how Vera Chaplina became famous, helped animals, and wrote popular books about them before she was largely forgotten. A small group of people today is working to restore her memory.
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A burglar’s worst nightmare
In April 1935, passengers on a Moscow tram heard “a long, wheezing sound, like a creaky door.” It was coming from a young woman holding something against her chest. Eventually, someone asked the woman what was making such a strange sound. After he quietly informed the others, all of the passengers took turns going up to her to take a peek. When it finally came time for the woman to get off, the conductor shouted after her, “Hey, miss, why didn’t you show me the lion?”
In October that year, the lion made another appearance in downtown Moscow. One of the first people to meet it was a taxi driver waiting outside 16 Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street. When he saw a lion approaching — accompanied by a woman, a man, and a dog — the driver screamed and slammed the car door shut. But the man with the lion just opened another door and let the others in — and the driver had no choice but to head to their destination.
In March 1936, an article about the lion appeared in Izvestia. A burglar had broken into the communal apartment at Bolshaya Dmitrovka 16. When no residents appeared, the burglar examined room after room, until suddenly he noticed a lion standing in front of him “with a terrible roar.” The burglar tried to back away toward the door, but the lion blocked his path; when he climbed onto a table, the lion followed. Finally, the burglar climbed up onto a tall wardrobe. The lion refused to let him out of its sight, so the burglar stayed up there until the police arrived. The lion didn’t hurt a soul, the entire time.
Kinuli the Lion wasn’t the only animal Vera Chaplina raised. An early advocate for treating captive animals humanely, Chaplina worked at the Moscow Zoo for more than 20 years. Her stories were read all over the USSR and abroad. Chaplina’s erasure from the Moscow Zoo’s official history, however, began even before her death, and as a result, she’s been all but forgotten.
“When someone dies, they become more comprehensible”
In 1994, when Chaplina died, her granddaughter Marina Agafonova and Marina’s husband, Maxim Taviev, waited eagerly for someone to write a book about her. “That’s what always happens when a famous person dies,” says Taviev. But it became clear as time went on that nobody was working on a biography. “Vera Vasilyevna died on December 19, on St. Nicholas Day. It wasn’t until early the following year, in the winter, that I finally started gradually going through her papers,” Taviev says, arguing that it had to be done: “A writer died. The writer has an archive, and her descendants should know what’s in it.”
Vera Chaplina was always reluctant to talk about herself. “There were a lot of things she never talked about, things we’ve only been able to establish based on tiny scraps,” Maxim recalls. “By and large, when Vera Vasilyevna was still alive, we didn’t really think about it too much. When somebody’s alive, you don’t understand what they’re really like. When they die, they become more comprehensible. But only after the fact.”
“She’ll definitely end up doing hard labor.”
In 1918, during the Russian Civil War, Chaplina’s family — an aristocratic family consisting of ten-year-old Vera, her mother, her brother, and her sister — found themselves in Tashkent (now the capital of Uzbekistan). Vera’s parents — both of whom were “light and fun” people, according to Maxim Taliev — had divorced two years earlier. In their new city, Chaplina’s mother took in a young “Cossack, mutilated by war.” Maxim isn’t sure what her motivations were, whether they were “benevolent” or “motherly.” One day, however, when Chaplina’s mother was out of town, the boy assaulted Chaplina with a nagaika (a short whip often associated with Cossacks). She ran away from home and soon ended up at an orphanage.
“War, famine, rolling around in the snow without clothes or shoes; all it took to make us happy was a piece of bread crust. You’d chew it until your jaw hurt, then you’d be afraid to swallow it because you didn’t want to lose the taste,” Chaplina later recalled. Despite the famine, she would share her food with her numerous pets. Despite being small and skinny, Chaplina was willing to fight even the largest boys to protect her animals; they’d call her “rabid” in response. “Chaplina?” her teachers would say. “She’ll definitely end up doing hard labor.”
It’s unclear how much time Chaplina spent in the orphanage, but the family was eventually reunited in Ukraine. “Either the famine hit, or something else happened, and Vera Vasilyevna left Tashkent along with the rest of the orphanage,” says Taviev. “At one point, the train was practically all typhoid patients, and the children were dying in droves.”
In 1923, Chaplina and her mother, brother, and sister returned to their family apartment on Bolshoi Dmitrovka Street in Moscow, which had become a communal apartment. Chaplina continued to take in pets, including two squirrels, a Fox Terrier named Tobik, and a fox named Trillby. Most important for her, though, was the ability to go to the zoo and observe its inhabitants.
One day, a tall man with a full beard approached her at the zoo. “You like animals?” he asked. Chaplina truly loved them; in fact, she later wrote that her love for animals was the only thing that helped her survive “great sorrow” that had befallen her as a child.
“Yes, I love animals,” she said. “Well, if you want to come study them, come join us,” said the man. He handed Chaplina a card for the zoo’s Young Biologists’ Club.
“My life began the day I went to the zoo,” Chaplina would later write.
Kindergarten for animals
The bearded man turned out to be a 42-year-old zoologist and naturalist named Pyotr Manteifel — or Uncle Petya, as his students called him. He was the leader of the Young Biologists’ Club. Manteifel believed that children should become an essential part of the park and, despite their age, should participate in studying, observing, and caring for the animals — including feeding them, cleaning their cages, leading tours, and even helping acquire new animals for the zoo (which wasn’t always safe).
One day, Chaplina asked Uncle Petya to let her “raise some kind of animal.” He didn’t refuse, but (being aware of her bad grades in school) demanded that she bring him her Russian notebooks first. “He flipped through them, looked at me with reproach, and said, ‘You need to learn some patience. You won’t be able to work with animals otherwise. And you need to re-do these exercises,’” Chaplina later recalled.
Vera Chaplina created the Cubs’ Playground in 1933. She was 25 years old and, like many former Young Biologists’ Club members, she had gone on to work at the zoo. The Playground was her first experiment, and Uncle Petya helped her organize it.
This “kindergarten for animals” operated from May to October. It was primarily for animals whose mothers had stopped feeding them and who weren’t safe around adult animals — on some occasions, female animals had eaten their cubs or dragged them around until they died.
Just like at other kindergartens, animals in the Cubs’ Playground followed a strict schedule. They were fed at 10 in the morning. From 11 until two in the afternoon, they all went on walks together. At three, they ate lunch, then they had two hours of quiet time. According to a 1936 article printed in Pioneer, they observed the quiet time “especially well.” After that, they went on another walk, ate dinner, and then went to sleep. Sometimes, the animals misbehaved or even fought; according to letters from one of the Playground’s employees, it was the bear cubs who were the naughtiest. In October 1936, they escaped from their pen multiple times, organized escapes for the dingo puppies, and once even got into a fight with the lion cubs. The species were quickly separated, however; aggression was not allowed.
Under Chaplina’s leadership, both zoo employees and Young Biologists’ Club members cared for the animals. The animals were “generously fed,” and workers tried to create conditions in which they would “feel they were in captivity as little as possible.” In those days, wild animals were reluctant to breed in the zoo, and mortality rates among young animals were extremely high. As a result, raising “healthy and strong” baby animals became especially important.
Chaplina explained the idea of bringing up members of different species together as a way to save time and effort, since the zoo had a limited number of employees. “[Previously,] the baby animals were located in different parts of the zoo. A lot of time was wasted running from one cage to the next.” Lack of space also played a role. “In Moscow, as you know, we’re all forced to live together because there still aren’t enough apartments. In 1933, when I began my experiment, the zoo was facing the same problem,” Chaplina told The Christian Science Monitor in 1935.
She began by putting three to four baby animals in the same territory together. In 1936, according to her notes, almost 120 baby animals spent time on the Cubs’ Playground. Among them were 14 rabbits, nine hamsters, eight Ussurri raccoons, six dormice, six squirrels, a bear cub, a fox cub, a “teenage” hedgehog, a ground squirrel, five wolf cubs, five dingo puppies, five ferrets, four piglets, four baby goats, two lion cubs, two baby moose, two lambs, one baby elephant, one baby wildebeest, one kitten, and three rats.
At the time, zoo employees believed the animals would grow up to be “completely tame” — many of them were later sent to other zoos, circuses, and children’s centers, where they definitely stood out. Some of them even remained friends even after becoming adults. A 1939 article described interactions between a bear and a lion who had grown up together in the Playground:
“In the lions’ house, two adult lions are put with two dingos. They’re all childhood playground friends — they were raised there together last year. One of the friends, a bear, had to be put in a timeout for bothering one of the lions by sucking on his ear. The lion almost had a nervous breakdown, running from his tired friend, but the bear continued to follow him everywhere and, closing his eyes, took the lion by the ear.”
The living lottery
A Moscow Zoo symbol for years, the Cubs’ Playground was always full of people. In 1937, however, Chaplina was promoted to head of the zoo’s predator department, while other zoo employees were being purged in large numbers — including Young Biologists’ Club members.
In January 1936, Lev Ostrovsky became the zoo’s new director. In less than two years — in September 1937 — zoo employees were accusing him of turning the zoo into a “carnival and [into] his personal fiefdom.” They claimed that, in order to save money, Ostrovsky ordered the slaughter of some of the rarer animals. “Employees tried in vain to prove to the director that all these animals were herbivores who only required cheap feed. The sheep hybrids, the banteng hybrids, and the bears were all slaughtered, and their meat was distributed to zoo staff for a low price,” they said.
Ostrovsky used other controversial management methods, as well. In December 1936, he organized a series of what he called “living lotteries,” in which children who visited the zoo could win prizes from Grandfather Frost (the Russian version of Santa Claus). Some of them, after winning a fox or a bear cub, declined them immediately; others tried to raise them at home but returned them to the zoo after having little success. The “lottery” helped the zoo attract record numbers of visitors — 70,000 people a day.
Despite the public accusations, Ostrovsky remained zoo director until 1941. Employees who spoke out against him were either fired or arrested. Even Uncle Petya was forced to leave the zoo in 1937.
When asked how Vera Chaplina managed to avoid the purges, Maxim Taviev offers several possible explanations. First, he says, she had spent time in an orphanage and “fallen to the bottom of the social ladder, as was required to be a good Soviet person.” Secondly, Chaplina was always “very careful.”
“Understanding what was happening around her, Vera Vasilyevna kept her focus on animals,” he explains. “She tried her best not to join any factions, staying out of conversations where people vented their personal feelings. She had the common sense of a person who had been through a lot. She knew she needed to protect herself for the sake of her family and her work.”
“She screamed so loud the entire apartment came running”
Despite having been born in the Moscow Zoo, Kinuli was only three days old when she moved to the communal apartment. Her mother, a lion named Manka, refused to feed her and her three siblings — even Chaplina wrote that Manka was a “pig, not a lion.” Feeling sorry for the starving cubs, she decided to save one. She named it Kinuli — a play on a Russian word meaning “toss out,” which is what Kinuli’s mother had done to her.
“I called and said, ‘I’ll be arriving with a lion cub tomorrow.’ In response, my mother just gasped. Meanwhile, our roommate who had answered the phone, after she found out I wanted to bring a lion home, screamed so loud that the entire apartment came running. Then everyone started screaming about how I would be evicted and reported to the police,” Chaplina later recalled.
But Chaplina wasn’t kicked out of the apartment. The lion cub settled in her suitcase at first, then in a drawer in her bedroom. She put a fur coat and a hot water bottle in the drawer to keep her from freezing. She fed Kinuli every hour — she drank a liter a day of cream mixed with water, Chaplina’s attempt to recreate lion’s milk. She soon brought home an “assistant” from the zoo: a Scottish shepherd she called Perry. “When I introduced him to the lion,” she later wrote, “the dog started growling and tried to run away. I had to hold him there by force. But Perry gradually got used to his unusual pet, started licking her, and that meant he’d adopted Kinuli.”
Chaplina brought home other animals from the zoo, too: a fox, a dingo puppy, a leopard named Zabotka, and a lynx named Taska. But it was Kinuli who made her famous. News of a lion living in an apartment spread fast — crowds of strangers came to gawk at Kinuli. Both Soviet and foreign newspapers wrote about Kinuli frequently; they took photos and made films of her. Chaplina herself spoke about Kinuli’s life, too — a story about Kinuli came out in 1937 as part of the collection My Pets.
When people wanted to send letters to Kinuli but didn’t know Chaplina’s address, they often addressed letters to “Kinuli Chaplina, Moscow Zoo.” The letters reached her — too many of them for one mailbox. “I can’t believe it’s possible to live together with a lion, even though you raised her yourself,” somebody from Babruysk wrote in 1936. “I really like the stories. Especially Kinuli. Could you please write a book for us about how you raised the animals? And also about which animal is the best, how they behave, and whether they bite you?” wrote a young Kolya Ugryumov.
Contrary to her many skeptics’ fears, Kinuli acted just like a housecat — affectionate and playful. She spent a lot of time with Chaplina’s brother Vasily (their favorite games included soccer, wrestling, and putting Vasily’s head in Kinuli’s mouth), as well as with Vera’s son Tolya and his friends. “Sometimes, kids would come over, stand outside to the door, and whisper through the keyhole, ‘Kinuli! Come here, Kinuli!’ And Kinuli would jump up and walk to the door, as if she understood. […] And the kids would already be hiding. Kinuli would walk around, looking for them,” Chaplina wrote in her journal. “Then she’d find them and hide, too. Her family spot was behind the wardrobe. It was narrow, tight, and Kinuli could barely fit. The kids would know where she was hiding, but they wouldn’t find her immediately, or else she’d get offended — she’d leave and stop playing.”
Kinuli was also friendly with many of the communal apartment’s other residents. She would visit them and let them pet her; she especially loved sitting on 76-year-old Ksenya Stepanova’s lap. But there were others to whom she didn’t take so kindly, and she would hiss at them. One of these neighbors was an elderly woman named Antonina Vasilyevna, who repeatedly filed complaints against Kinuli, demanding her eviction. It took a group of residents advocating for Kinuli to put a stop to a series of visits from the Sanitary Inspectorate and the police.
In May 1936, however, Kinuli had to return to the zoo. “The police will no longer allow people to keep a lion in an apartment — after all, she’s big, the place is crowded, and she could bite someone!” Chaplina later wrote. It took Kinuli some time to get used to her new home: she spent the first 10 days depressed, refusing even to eat. Chaplina’s family visited every day — the move didn’t change their relationship with Kinuli. She also stayed close to Perry the dog, who moved to the zoo along with Kinuli and lived in her cage with her.
Eventually, Perry began suffering from arthritis, and rising to his feet became difficult. According to newspapers, Kinuli took care of him: she licked him clean, lay next to him almost constantly, and shared her almost five kilograms of meat with him. When it came time to take Perry to the vet, it was difficult to get him out of the cage; Kinuli growled, roared, and thrashed around the cage, not wanting to see him go. After that, they didn’t meet for two months. “Kinuli rushed over to Perry, meowing, and rubbed her head so hard we thought she was going to crush the dog. And Perry, forgetting his age and the pain in his legs, jumped like a puppy when he saw Kinuli,” wrote Chaplina.
On the night of July 23, 1941, a month into the Second World War, the Moscow Zoo was bombed for the first time. Most of the more valuable animals were evacuated to other zoos; Chaplina was assigned to accompany a group to Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg). Kinuli, as the “tamest” and safest animal for humans, stayed in Moscow. “Every letter from Moscow told me about Kinuli, how Kinuli was still feeling well, and how, despite the fact that the zoo had very few visitors, there was always someone standing outside Kinuli’s cage. Then they wrote that Perry was sick, and then they wrote that Perry had passed away and Kinuli was all alone,” Chaplina wrote.
She was allowed to return to Moscow in spring 1943. When she approached Kinuli’s cage, Kinuli was lying in the corner and eating meat. Chaplina called to him in a whisper. Kinuli’s ears pricked up; she looked at Vera for a long time, then rushed over to her. “She hit the bars so hard there was blood coming from her nose and lips,” Chaplina wrote. “But she didn’t notice the pain, she just kept caressing me.”
In 1945, Kinuli died. “Vera Vasilyevna had seen so many animal deaths — it was a natural part of her work. But there were certain animals who were so close to her that she experienced their deaths as if they were humans,” says Maxim Taviev.
Chaplina was on a work trip when Kinuli died, and Taviev never managed to find out the cause of Kinuli’s death. “We’re not even sure where it happened,” Taviev says. “But it was roughly between the spring of 1945 and January 1, 1946, when Vera Vasilyevna left the zoo.”
Scrubbed from zoo history
According to Vera Chaplina, she left the zoo because she could finally support her family through her literary career alone; her books were being published in France, the U.S., Japan, and other countries, as well as the USSR. “She felt she had great potential as a writer, and that’s exactly what she wanted to do,” says Maxi Taviev.
At the same time, Taviev assumes that Kinuli’s death influenced Chaplina’s decision to leave the zoo, in addition to a general understanding that her “life with the zoo had been exhausted.” “She wasn’t allowed to do the work she wanted to,” says Taviev. “After getting a top administrative job, going back to practical work with animals would have been absolute nonsense. All of the positions were occupied. And would have been strange for someone from the zoo administration to do the simple, hands-on work. Are they trying to demonstrate something?”
According to Taviev, Chaplina’s relationship with the zoo started to change after Igor Sosnovsky became zoo director in 1951. Sosnovsky had managed the terrarium before the war and, like Chaplina, was a former Young Biologists’ Club member. Under Sosnovsky, Chaplina’s name was effectively banned from the zoo. It wasn’t just avoided in conversations with zoo administration; it stopped being mentioned even in tour guides and informational brochures.
For example, there wasn’t a single word about Chaplina in an article about the tiger she raised, Sirotka, who was included in a collection of Moscow Zoo research in 1956. The text includes a photo of Sirotka with Chaplina’s face cut out. “On one hand, she probably resented it deeply, but she had a deeply noble sense of self-respect. She wouldn’t have dwelled on it at all — not at all,” says Taviev.
Zoo animals never disappeared from Chaplina’s stories (she wrote about them for the publisher Malysh, for example), but beginning in 1965, soon after she became the public environmental protection inspector, she started writing more about the kinds of animals that live among people.
Chaplina explained this transition in the foreword to her collection Chance Encounters, which was released in 1976. “Several people have written letters asking me to send them a small tiger or lion, or to tell them where they can get one. This was mainly people who don’t know animals at all. They’ve never raised anything in their lives, never brought up or even noticed the birds or creatures that live near them. […] How many interesting things you can learn from the life of an animal or a bird, and how much good you can do for them!” she wrote.
“She was still interested in zoos, but that ship had already sailed,” says Maxim Taviev. “The zoo had left her with a desolate feeling. She had seen it grow old, but something new had also been added, which completely dispirited her.”
Today’s Moscow Zoo is vastly different from the zoo where Vera Chaplina worked. It’s no longer possible to imagine Lev Ostrovsky’s “living lottery,” or the cramped cages with thick bars. The Young Biologists’ Club, however, still remains.
The Cubs’ Playground that Chaplina created was preserved until 1976, when zoo administrators shut it down. “It practically died of natural causes. Everything depends on people. If nobody’s interested in something, it’ll just go away and die,” says Taviev.
The zoo’s official position differs significantly from Taviev’s words: over time, the zoo administration began to think the idea might be harmful. “These animals were unable to reproduce later on, and generally unable to live normal lives,” said Natalya Istratova, the zoo’s press secretary, on Radio Mayak in 2013. “The Cubs’ Playground entailed separating babies from their mothers — it was a Stalin-era understanding of how to raise children.”
Today, zoo employees make every effort to leave baby animals with their mothers. If a mother is unable to raise her offspring for some reason, the baby is taken and raised separately. According to the zoo’s website, this is done “in strict compliance with the latest scientific findings concerning animal behavior and how to preserve an animal’s natural instincts.”
Meduza reached out to the Moscow Zoo for comment about the Cubs’ Playground and Chaplina’s legacy in early March, but we received no response by the time we published this story.
In 2012, after years of reaching out to the Moscow Zoo about creating an exhibit in Vera Chaplina’s honor and receiving little response, Marina Agafonova and Maxim Taviev started a blog on LiveJournal to tell stories about Chaplina’s life. According to Taviev, they initially updated the blog only occasionally. Later in the year, however, everything changed when doctors diagnosed Agafonova with cancer.
In order to take care of his wife, Taviev left his job. He started to focus more on the archive. “Marina was very involved,” he says. “She was a talented, natural-born editor, despite not having worked as one. And the first person to realize her talent was Vera Vasilyevna.”
The following year, Taviev and Agafonova donated the archive to the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, and a fund was opened in her name. They gave other materials to the Darwin Museum and Children’s Library in Omsk, which was renamed in Chaplina’s honor.
Marina Agafonova, the granddaughter of Vera Chaplina, died on September 28, 2020, two days after the couple’s 33rd wedding anniversary. For a long time, Taviev didn’t mention her death on their blog. He finally wrote about it in March 2021, after his interview with Meduza. “It’s silly and personal, of course,” says Max. “I wanted to prolong her life, her existence, in the space of the blog.”
Translation by Sam Breazeale