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Russian Aunties of Yoko Ono

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Russian Aunties of Yoko Ono


Sergey Vinogradov

Few people are aware that Yoko Ono, John Lennon's wife who has spent most of her life in the United States, was brought up under the influence of her Russian aunt, Anna Bubnova. For over half a century, the estate where she grew up has been home to the museum of Alexander Pushkin. The poet had visited the Tver village of Bernovo more than once.

The connection of the Japanese wife of the iconic British musician with Russia and Russian culture is described in "Yoko Ono. Legend in the Tver region", a video that won the International Tourism Film Festival in the Best Tourist Destination category.

Yoko Ono even visited her aunt's birthplace fifteen years ago, in the summer of 2007. According to her, she "imbibed the love for music and culture" from her Russian aunt. The museum staff told the Russkiy Mir that they were grateful to Yoko for the international popularization of the estate. Nevertheless, they also mentioned that Russians and foreigners mostly visit Bernovo because of their interest in Pushkin.

At John’s side until the last minute

Yoko Ono first came to prominence in the 1960s for her avant-garde works with a touch of artistic provocation. Her unique creations attracted the attention of John Lennon, one of the leaders of the cult band The Beatles.

Their meeting became the reason for the musician's divorce, and Yoko subsequently became his second wife. Several songs from the Beatles' repertoire as well as Lennon's solo compositions were dedicated to her. John encouraged Yoko to join his musical pursuits and they made several records together, including the last one in Lennon's discography. Sean Lennon, John and Yoko’s son, made it into music as well.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Photo credit:

Yoko Ono was at the side of her famed husband until the last minutes of his life. The killer shot John Lennon dead in her presence on the doorstep of their home in New York. Many fans believe she was responsible for the breakup of The Beatles. According to them, Yoko was the reason John changed his ways and abandoned his long-lasting friendship with the other members of the Liverpool Four.

Nevertheless, the documentary about The Beatles recording their last album was screened a year ago. It featured some previously unreleased footage, which revealed that Yoko Ono did not interfere with the communication between John and the other Beatles members, and the latter took her quite amicably.

The video "Yoko Ono. Legend in the Tver region" shows the Japanese artist's visit to her aunt's homeland. The actress acting as Yoko explores Russian culture and the charms of Russian nature. At the same time, she discovers that distant Russia has many traits that are close to a Japanese woman's heart. Naturally, she visits her aunt's homestead as well and walks pensively through the house and garden. "Yoko Ono is opening the door to the Bernovo estate," the voiceover is heard.

It's not hard to understand that the central character of the short film is not Yoko. It is the Tver land with its stunning diversity. The video was made with the support of the Ministry of Tourism of the Tver Region. The film lasts less than three minutes, while work on it took more than a year, as the authors strove to reveal the beauties of the region in all four seasons.

The Bubnov Sisters in Japan

The Beatles' fans from Russia have always sought a link between the Liverpool Four and our country. There are surprisingly persistent myths about the band's secret visit to the USSR and their concert for the party leadership, as well as about their joint musical encounter with Lyudmila Zykina when The Beatles allegedly met her on a foreign tour. There are also widespread stories about Paul McCartney's fondness for the poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

Yet Russian Beatlemaniacs missed the closest link between the musicians, their environment, and Russia. The lead could have brought them to Youko Ono. It was not only about the Russian aunt Anna and her sister Varvara, but also about her uncle Shun'ichi Ono who had studied at the University of St. Petersburg. It was through him that the Bubnov sisters made their way to Japan.

They resided in St. Petersburg and spent their summers in Bernovo, the birthplace of their mother, née Wulf, a relative of Anna Kern who had been made famous by Pushkin. Anna and a Japanese student fell in love. When the Japanese government ordered its citizens to leave Russia in the revolutionary year of 1917, the young couple got married and went to the husband's homeland.

Anna Bubnova and Shun'ichi Ono

Tamara Kochneva, a senior researcher at the museum in Bernovo, accompanied Yoko Ono during her visit to the estate. She explained that the Ono clan had initially given the Russian girl a hostile reception. However, her humility, grace, and intelligence helped her to break the ice with her new relatives.

Anna Bubnova, "the mother of Japanese violinists"

The young couple had a son. Anna's sister Varvara came to Japan to meet her nephew and stayed in the country for a long time. Anna and Shun'ichi's son passed away at the age of 14. The couple eventually broke up. Anna continued to be in touch with the Ono clan, especially with the family of her former husband's younger brother, Yeisuke Ono, who had a daughter, Yoko.

Now it is hard to figure out the point when the Russian sisters stepped in to help the girl's artistic development. Either her parents noticed her talents and introduced her to her Russian aunties, or the Bubnov sisters sparked Yoko's interest in art. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Yoko Ono got her knowledge and first skills in painting and music from Anna and Varvara.

Education was structured quite professionally. Anna Bubnova-Ono was Professor Violinist at the Academy of Music in Tokyo (Tusashino Music Institute) and was the first Russian to receive the Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasure in 1959 for her contributions to the music profession. In Japan, Anna Bubnova-Ono is referred to as "the mother of Japanese violinists". Her sister Varvara was an avant-garde artist and teacher of Russian language and literature at several Tokyo universities. Her efforts made it possible to raise several generations of specialists in Russian philology in Japan.

My aunties told me

It is not mere rhetoric that Yoko was taught by the Bubnovs to love Russia and Russian culture. Having visited the estate in Bernovo in the summer of 2007, Yoko was able to describe its garden and some details of the estate without having seen them in person because her aunts had told her about them. Valentina Gromova, the head of the museum, confirmed this fact during her conversation with the Russkiy Mir journalist.

Varvara Bubnova. Photo credit: Marina Tsvetayeva's House Museum

The main house of the Bernovo estate. Photo credit: Belliy /

While at the Moscow Biennale, Yoko Ono recalled that Bernovo, which she had been told a lot about as a child, was nearby and decided to visit it," she said. “It seemed that those stories were deeply engraved in her memory. Yoko told the museum staff what a wonderful sod bench we had, and what lovely lilies were there on the pond, even though she hadn't seen any of those yet. The visit to Bernovo was like a trip back to her childhood. The visit was private, no one was present except the reporters from the Staritskiy Vestnik, a local newspaper. Their report was later republished by the big media outlets.”

Yoko Ono in the living room of the Wolf's House. Photo credit: A.S. Pushkin Museum in Bernovo

The museum's guests are told about Yoko Ono's visit to Bernovo in the room devoted to Varvara Bubnova. Here you can see Varvara's personal belongings (brushes, paints, suitcase, casket, Japanese table), her paintings and photographs of her famous Japanese student's visit. Having returned from Japan to the USSR in 1966 ( that was the year when Yoko met John Lennon in London), the sisters visited their homestead. It was even before the museum was opened, as the idea of its establishment was suggested by Varvara Bubnova. She left drawings of the house and a description of the park the way she had seen them in her childhood.

Did Yoko Ono's visit put the museum in the spotlight? It's hard to say. It became our " feature," and in a way enhanced the status of the museum. The relationship between Yoko Ono and the museum has not been established, and we don't keep in touch with her. Nevertheless, we keep the memory of her visit," said Valentina Gromova.

Exposition at Bernovo Photo credit: A.S. Pushkin Museum in Bernovo

During her visit, Yoko was accompanied by her cousin Yugo Ono, the son of Anna Bubnova's husband from his second marriage. He published his memoirs "Shun'ichi Ono and the Bubnov Sisters - A Link between Russia and Japan".

A.S. Pushkin Museum in Bernovo is located 110 kilometers from Tver. The village is situated off the major highways like it was in the times of the poet. it has preserved its provincial traits in a good sense of the word. The remote location does not discourage visitors from many parts of Russia and from abroad.

Yoko Ono and Yugo Ono in Bernovo. Photo credit: A.S. Pushkin Museum in Bernovo

We've had Germans, Italians, French, British, and representatives of many other countries who come mainly because of Pushkin," Valentina Gromova said. "Two years ago we were visited by a teacher from Waseda University in Japan. This is where Varvara Bubnova used to teach the Russian language and literature. He researches her life and activities in Japan and told us a lot of interesting things about the Bubnov sisters. This memory has been preserved not only by us but also by the Japanese who remember and honor Anna and Varvara.”


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