875 years since the first historical record of Moscow
Moscow traces its history back to 1147, when it was mentioned in the chronicles for the first time. The early 12th century saw Kievan Rus disintegrate into many separate principalities. During this period, Prince Yury Dolgoruky of Rostov and Suzdal (1090–1157) began to build new towns and communities. Pereslavl Zalessky, Yuriev Polsky and Dmitrov were just a few of his projects. There were villages scattered along the Moskva River at that time. It was the best location for a walled town, a border point. Wooden Kremlin walls were erected to protect the residents of the former villages. After some time, the town started to be called Moscow, derived from the Moskva River.
A person’s biography can only tell us so much about his or her personality but a historical account focusing on dates and events can only give a vague idea of what a city was really like. Therefore, we would like to present an architectural portrait of Moscow instead, so that through the history of some of its most significant buildings and monuments, you can get a feel for the city’s history and discover some interesting facts you may not find in conventional guidebooks.
On the square outside City Hall, on Tverskaya Street, there is a statue of a medieval soldier on a horse. The imposing Soviet-era monument honours Moscow’s founder, Yuri Dolgoruky. As a matter of fact, we have no credible historical evidence of what the prince really looked like.
Like many other places in central Moscow, this spot is an amalgamation of legend, facts, individual life stories and varying ideologies. Prior to Yuri Dolgoruky, this was the site of a monument to General Mikhail Skobelev, who demonstrated his outstanding military prowess in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 to become the darling of the army and the public alike. The monument was unveiled on 24 June 1912, only to be knocked down six years afterward, on 1 May 1918, in keeping with a decree on the demolition of monuments to tsars and their servants. A replacement came along later that year, in the form of a monument to the Soviet Constitution, with a statue of Liberty added in 1919. This set survived till 1941. Finally, the monument to Dolgoruky that we can see there today was erected in 1954.
A stockade on Borovitsky Hill
According to archaeologists, unknown pre-Slavic tribes lived on the high Borovitsky Hill (now the site of St Basil’s Cathedral) as early as the second millennium BC.
The settlements developed, and in the medieval era, in line with the evolutionary laws of any town of that period, they were soon fenced off to protect the population. The fence was later replaced with a fortified wall, giving rise to what became known in Russian as a “kremlin,” or fortress.
Roads were built to link Muscovy with other population centres in Rus, historical routes which are now motorways.
History likes to have its little joke every now and again. One sad example of this is the infamous Vladimirsky Trakt route, along which convicts used to be sent to labour camps in the Russian heartland. In the Soviet era, it was renamed Shosse Entuziastov (Enthusiasts’ Motorway).
Artisans and craftsmen gradually came to settle on the lands outside the Kremlin walls. Their trade-specific boroughs expanded over time, and the city developed several new belt walls as a result. The Kitaigorod wall was the first to emerge; Bely Gorod (nowadays the Boulevard Ring Road) came second, to be followed by Zemlyanoi Val, originally a ditch protected with a 16-kilometre fence (now the Garden Ring Road). In 1742, Kamerkollezhsky Val was designated as Moscow’s customs border. This wall, stretching for 37 kilometres, could only be passed through special checkpoints, some of which have become part of the city’s topography. For example, a surviving milestone from that period can still be found on Rogozhskaya Zastava Square.
Moscow thus developed along a circular layout, which nowadays is often blamed for the city’s chronic traffic jams. Other population centres which spread during the Middle Ages by adding several wall belts are also struggling with the problem of road congestion.
However, people who lived in medieval Moscow obviously could not foresee that their urban planning patterns would come to pose such a problem several centuries later. Incidentally, the city’s most disastrous traffic jam to date was on 6 January 1931, when all the trams, buses, carriages and taxi cabs ground to a halt. To deal with this problem, the authorities decided to start the construction of an underground network.
The natural course of urban life in Moscow was regularly interrupted by fires, riots and epidemics. The Mongol ruler Batyi Khan ruined Moscow in 1238, and Tokhtamysh Khan and Devlet Girei Khan burned it to the ground a century later. Fires from natural causes were not infrequent, either. The All Saints Fire of 1365 almost razed the city to the ground. The chronicles report that during severe epidemic outbreaks, Moscow’s streets were full of corpses, with the number of survivors too few to bury the dead. The 1654 plague epidemic is believed to have claimed as many as 150,000 lives and practically left the city a ghost town.
Another devastating fire occurred in 1812, when Napoleon’s Grande Armée entered Moscow. There is still no agreement among historians as to whether the fire was the result of arson on the part of defiant residents, or was part of an official strategic plan. One way or the other, it forced Bonaparte to retreat to the outskirts, where he spent the next days in the Petrovsky Palace, northwest of Moscow. It was from there that he watched the city ablaze, the city that he never actually conquered.
The Petrovsky Palace underwent major refurbishment during the reign of Nicholas I. Part of pre-Napoleonic Moscow can still be seen on Maroseika and Pokrovka, where the French command took up their residence. Some of the houses on these streets survived the 1812 fire.
After its liberation from the French invaders, Moscow had to be rebuilt, much of it from scratch. Before 1812, there were 290 churches in Moscow, but only 115 survived the Napoleonic campaign. And of the city’s 9,158 houses, as few as 2,626 remained intact. To glorify the triumph over Bonaparte’s army, a decision was taken in 1839 to build a cathedral of Christ the Saviour, on a site formerly occupied by St Alexis’ Convent. Funds for the ambitious project had to be raised nationwide.
Other projects which celebrated the liberation include the Alexander Gardens, the Manezh, Red Square, Teatralnaya Square and architect Osip Bove’s Arc de Triomphe, which initially stood on Tverskaya Street. The arch was dismantled in 1936 and subsequently relocated to Kutuzov Avenue, close to the Victory Park. Major renovation of this monument began in December 2011, as part of preparations for the bicentenary of Russia’s victory in the Patriotic War of 1812 and reopened on 4 September 2012.
Moscow faced large-scale destruction in later periods, too. In 1917, the Kremlin was heavily damaged as a result of artillery shelling. Then in Soviet times, the authorities had many historical buildings knocked down out of ideological reasons. Predictably, the demolition campaign proved the harshest on churches. Many beautiful wooden buildings were lost.
In the 18th century, an aqueduct was built from the town of Mytishchi to Moscow which supplied the city with clean water until the final quarter of the 19th century. Electric lamps eventually took over from gas lanterns, and wooden roadways were replaced with cobblestone, and then later with asphalt.
A multilayered city: the Church of the Ascension, the ‘chest of drawers house’ and Igumnov’s mansion
Despite all the trials and tribulations Moscow faced over the centuries, its architectural landscape still boasts structures from almost every historical period.
The Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos “na Senyakh” is the oldest surviving building in the Moscow Kremlin. It was built in 1393–1394 on a commission from Princess Evdokiya, wife of Dmitry Donskoi. The lower half of the building has survived, including the main entrance and some of the windows. In 1395, the church was decorated by the famed icon painters Theophanes the Greek and Daniel the Black, together with their apprentices. When the construction of the Grand Kremlin Palace began in 1838, architect Konstantin Ton integrated the church in the design, surrounding it from all sides with other structures and new walls. But the Nativity Church’s original, 14th century ground floor has survived to this day.
16th century. Grand Prince Vasily III was long childless. He prayed to God continually for an heir and changed wives, but to no avail. As legend has it, a son was born to him only after he had launched the construction of a church atop a steep hill with a wonder-working spring at its foot.
The Church of the Ascension in Kolomenskoye became the Muscovite principality’s first tented roof church, built to an innovative plan which broke with the traditions of Vladimir and Suzdal architecture. The name of the architect is unknown. The cathedral’s roofs over the porches were rebuilt in the 19th century using planks from one of Alexander I’s palaces, which was dismantled in 1872. This palace was built in 1825 using materials from a residence of Catherine II, which, in its turn, had largely made use of materials from the former quarters of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. Moscow is, indeed, a multilayered city.
17th century. Artisans in Moscow began to settle in trade-specific communities (“sloboda” in Russian). According to accounts from the period, during this time there were the following slobodas: Barashskaya (a “barash” was a craftsman who made royal marquees; the term later also came to be used for wallpaper makers); Basmannaya (a derivative of the verb “basmit,” to make decorations using metals and leather); Taganskaya (a “tagan” was an iron support for cooking food on an open fire); weavers made their home in Khamovnaya Sloboda; potters, in Goncharnaya Sloboda; coin minters, in Denezhnaya; gunmakers, in Bronnaya and Pushkarskaya; icon painters, in Ikonnaya; people who worked in horse stables lived in Konyushennaya; boiler-house workers, in Kotelnaya; gardeners, in Ogorodnaya and Sadovnichya; book printers, in Pechatnaya; carpenters, in Plotnichya; cloth makers, in Sukonnaya; and those in the hide tanning trade, in Syromyatnaya.
Local artisans often built community churches, with money they raised from the public. Khamovnaya Sloboda’s weavers, who made white cloth for the Royal Court, initiated the construction of a church of St Nicholas, their patron saint. The structure was built in 1679–1682. A refectory and a tented roof belfry were added to it after 1694. This bell tower now leans off vertical, like Italy’s Tower of Pisa. The church of St Nicholas is full of light and beautifully ornate, resembling a magnificent wedding cake. Some historians attribute the project, including the enameled titles used in the decoration, to Yaroslavl masters. The tiles also date from the 17th century, a particularly turbulent era for the country. The church of St Nicholas is one of the few churches which continued holding services throughout the Soviet era and retained its original bells and icons. It is a rare example of a historical Russian edifice which has survived almost entirely in its original form, without undergoing any major reconstruction.
18th century. As legend has it, Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna, daughter of Peter I, secretly married her lover Alexei Razumovsky at the Resurrection Church on Pokrovka Street (only vestiges of this church have survived to this day). The handsome white and pale blue mansion at No. 22 was their wedding gift and became their meeting place. Nicknamed the “chest of drawers house,” it, indeed, resembles an old carved chest of drawers with many protruding details. It was built in the latter half of the 18th century by an unknown master of the Francesco Rastrelli school, and is, perhaps, Moscow’s only Baroque architecture monument to have come down to us from Yelizaveta’s times.
The “chest of drawers house” was initially owned by Count Apraksin and his descendants. Later it passed on to the Trubetskoi family. They held the property for almost 90 years. It was home to four generations of family, and they were visited by many people of note there. The Trubetskois arranged private dance classes on the premises, with the future world-famous poets Alexander Pushkin and Fyodr Tyutchev among their young students.
Prince Trubetskoi’s daughters studied history with Mikhail Pogodin, who later became a famous historian. Vasily Kornilyev, a long-time acquaintance of Pogodin and uncle to the chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev, served there as house manager. He was married to a daughter of Commodore Billings, an explorer of Siberia and the Arctic, who took part in James Cook’s third round-the-world expedition.
The house is also linked to Leo Tolstoy. It was here that the marriage of his parents, Nikolai Tolstoy and Maria Volkonskaya, was arranged. On 9 July of that year, they were wed in the Church of SS. Peter and Paul at Yasenevo, outside Moscow. Following the abolition of serfdom in 1861, even well-off noble families such as the Trubetskoi found it hard to maintain all of their properties. So Prince Ivan, who served in a cavalry regiment, and his mother, Olga Fyodorovna, sold off the house. The buyer, Moscow University, used the newly acquired property for Lycée No. 4, one of Moscow’s best secondary schools for boys at the time.
Among its students was Nikolai Zhukovsky, the founding father of Russian aircraft engineering, as well as Konstantin Stanislavsky and Savva Morozov, who would later become the patron of The Moscow Art Theatre. The list of well-known names goes on and on – Nikolai Skryabin, father of the future composer Alexander Skryabin; Bolshoi opera singer Pavel Khokhlov; and historian Alexei Shakhmatov, who revolutionised the study of Russian chronicles and was responsible for the research carried out on the Tale of Bygone Years. Other famous students include Fyodor Getier, the first chief doctor of the Botkin Hospital and a personal physician of Kremlin leaders, and fellow doctor Alexander Puchkov, who became the founder and first head of the Moscow Ambulance Station, set up in 1923.
The house has survived to this day. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the school was converted into a residential block with communal flats, to be shared by several families. During the Civil War, tenants had to heat their homes by burning whatever wooden furniture there was at hand, even parts of the flooring, the handrails from the staircases and the doors. 19th century. 5 Maly Kazyonny Pereulok. This mansion also survives to this day. In the 19th century, it was the setting for a beautiful and sad love story. Its young aristocratic owner, a brilliant cavalry officer, Vasily Ivashev, and the daughter of a French tutoress, Camille Dentu, fell in love with no hope of marriage. But when Vasily took part in the Decembrist uprising, and was consequently stripped of all his military ranks and aristocratic titles and sent to a labour camp in Siberia, Camille Dentu overcame all barriers and rejoined him. Despite the hardship they faced, their marriage proved a happy one. Her mother also went to Siberia to live together with the couple, and she continued her tutorship there, giving French lessons to the children of the exiled Decembrists. Camille Ivashev died at 31, eight years after their marriage.
Returning to the history of the house, it was bought in 1832 for an orthopaedic institute and in 1845 converted into a hospital for the poor, headed by German-born Fyodr Haas. Once a rich man and owner of the most expensive and most beautiful horse carriage in town, he lost his fortune by offering free medical treatment to ailing prisoners. No one knows the exact number of desperately needy patients the doctor helped, but one fact of his biography is widely known: Haas made the penitentiary authorities stop the use of shackles, a callous relic of the Middle Ages. Shackles would rub against the feet, creating sores, which would often get infected, causing more deaths among prisoners than did illness. The transfer of convicts to their penal colony could take months, with no medical aid provided. Haas repeatedly petitioned for the abolition of this barbaric measure before his appeal was finally heeded. In his later years, until his death in 1853, he lived in a small flat near the hospital. Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow came to pay his final tribute to the “saintly doctor,” as the man was popularly known, joining a crowd of about 20,000 other mourners. In 1909, a monument to Haas was built in the hospital’s courtyard, bearing an inscription of his favourite slogan: “Don’t hesitate to do good.” Today, more than a century on, people still lay flowers at the monument.
Just round the corner from this house is Moscow’s smallest square, Lyalina. Facing onto it is a house, the ground floor of which is now occupied by the café Bulochnaya (the Russian word for “bakery”), with a pre-Revolution manhole cover outside the entrance. Historically, the place housed a bakery, which, according to old-time residents, was remarkable for its delicious bread and its wonderful atmosphere. The bakery survived the Bolshevik upheaval and the Second World War, to operate all the way through the ‘80s. Only in the ‘90s did it close. Up until that point, umpteen generations of children from a nearby school used to run there for its fresh bread and pastries.
Now a few words about another house full of legend. It does indeed exist, and it currently houses the French Embassy. But fact ends here, giving way to legend and rumours which have been passed down from generation to generation. The Zamoskvorechye neighbourhood is located south of the Kremlin Hill, on the opposite side of the Moskva River, on former Court farming land. From the 14th century, there was a road going through this area leading to the Tatar Khanate, hence the name of the street, Bolshaya Ordynka (a derivative of “orda,” the Russian for “horde”).
In the 19th century, the previously overlooked Zamoskvorechye neighbourhood became popular with the Moscow merchantry. The area was not considered to be high class. But it was there that Nikolai Vasilyevich Igumnov, a wealthy merchant, chose to buy a plot of land to build his new house. It is said that on a satellite map of modern-day Abkhazia, you can still see the letters INV near the village of Alakhadzy — a hundred years ago, the merchant had a cypress alley planted there in the shape of his initials. Igumnov was the co-owner of the Yaroslavl textile manufactory and held gold mines in Siberia. A non-native Muscovite, he sought to impress the public in Moscow and spared no expense to achieve this.
He commissioned the talented Nikolai Pozdeyev, then the chief architect of Yaroslavl, to design his new home. The mansion on Bolshaya Yakimanka Street was built as a fairytale palace in the pseudo-Russian style. The brick was imported from the Netherlands, while the tiles were ordered from Terenti Kuznetsov’s factory, the purveyor of porcelain to the Russian Imperial Court. Now listed as a federal heritage site, the house was seen as controversial when it was built. Many censured it as an example of provincial vulgarity and bad taste. On top of it, a rumour was floated around town that Igumnov had the house built for a dancer, his lover, so that he could come from Yaroslavl to visit her there every now and then. According to the memoirs of his contemporaries, which vary in their degree of tragedy, one day she just disappeared. The most popular version of the story claims that on one of his surprise visits, Igumnov caught his lover in the arms of a young officer and had her immured alive into the wall of the house.
The accounts of the architect’s life story are more credible, yet equally tragic. Jeered at by the Moscow public, Igumnov offended Pozdeyev and refused to pay him for the commission. Defamed and ruined, the architect committed suicide. The house did not bring happiness to its owner either. Persisting in his ambition to defy the snobbishness of Moscow society, he arranged a lavish ball on Yakimanka in 1901, ordering that the floors be covered with golden coins. The following day, the emperor was informed that members of the Moscow merchantry had been dancing on his profile on the coins. Igumnov was punished by expulsion from the city, with no right to return.
The next owner fitted in perfectly with the dark legends surrounding the mansion: a brain research laboratory set up quarters here in 1925. Despite all the secrecy surrounding the classified institution, rumour spread fast. It is thought that over the 13 years of its existence, the laboratory studied the brains of Vladimir Lenin, Klara Zetkin, Alexander Tsuryupa, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Andrei Bely, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Maxim Gorky, Ivan Pavlov, Ivan Michurin, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Mikhail Kalinin, Sergei Kirov, Valerian Kuibyshev and Nadezhda Krupskaya. In 1938, the mansion was handed over to the French Embassy.
The capital of the Russian state
Moscow has been a capital city several times throughout its history. On the first occasion, the Golden Horde’s Ulan Khan arranged the coronation of Prince Vasily the Dark as Muscovy’s ruler. The ceremony took place in 1432 at the church of the Mother of God and also marked the transfer of the capital from Vladimir to Muscovy. Then Novgorod and Tver were annexed to the city during the reign of Ivan III, who refused to be a vassal to the Golden Horde ruler and thus became the first Russian sovereign monarch. In 1547, Ivan IV assumed the title of tsar, and Moscow became the capital of the Russian state until 1712.
In 1712, Peter I ruled that the capital be moved to the purpose-built St Petersburg. Construction in stone was then banned in Moscow, to save the precious material for St Petersburg. Moscow would always differ from the grandiose European St Petersburg by its more Russian, homey feel, with its narrow winding streets and patriarchal lifestyle.
De facto, the capital was returned to Moscow in 1728, under Peter II. The Imperial court was there until 1732, when Anna Ioannovna returned it back to St. Petersburg.
20th century. On 12 March 1918, the capital was transferred back to Moscow, following a Soviet government resolution. And in 1922, while remaining the capital of the Russian Republic, Moscow also became the capital of the Soviet Union. During this period, the city underwent intensive urban development. With an increase in population came the development of public transport. Regular bus routes appeared in Moscow in 1924, and the first trolleybuses came along in 1933. In May 1935, the metro was launched.
Twice it was proposed to rename Moscow, in the 1920s and ‘50s. I n the former instance, the plan was to name it Ilyich and in the latter, Stalinodar. In the end, it retained its original name – miraculously, perhaps. Equally miraculous was St Basil’s Cathedral’s narrow escape from demolition. The cathedral’s story is widely known and quite typical of the Stalinist era.
Some believe it to be a true story while others see it as a historical anecdote. They say that while showing Stalin a model for parades on Red Square, the architect in charge first removed the Resurrection Gates, then the Cathedral of the Virgin of Kazan and, lastly, St Basil’s. “Put it back,” Stalin suddenly said, and the church was left standing.
Seven high rises and the Stalin Empire style
During WWII, there were a few days which were particularly terrible. Muscovites saw the city’s metro stations being mined and occasional Nazi tanks breaking through the Khimki Bridge, on the Moscow’s outskirts. It is known for a fact that the crew of one such tank was taken prisoner. German motorcyclists are known to have entered the grounds of the Khimki river terminal, now called the Northern terminal, only to clash with a Soviet military boat. One other tank drove as far as the Sokol metro station, in northwest Moscow, and was showered with grenades by staff of a local draft office.
But the city weathered that trial as well. As we know, the WWII Battle of Moscow was the war’s most desperate fight, and it halted the Nazi offensive on the Soviet Union. The Soviets’ victory in the battle came at a very high price, however.
The postwar era’s architectural legacy includes seven high rises built in what later became known as the Stalin Empire style. These seven imposing edifices include an apartment building on Kotelnicheskaya Embankment, Moscow University’s main building on Vorobyovy Gory, the Ukraina hotel, an apartment building on Kudrinskaya Square, the Foreign Ministry headquarters, an office and residential house near the Krasnye Vorota metro station, and the Leningrad Hotel on Komsomolskaya Square. These buildings were supposed to replace the demolished major churches as the city’s main reference points, along with highlighting the grandeur of the Soviet system. Initially, it was planned to build the seven high rises around a Palace of Soviets as the centerpiece, but this latter building remained on paper only. The existing seven buildings can tell us not only about their VIP tenants, but also about their builders, recruited from the ranks of convicts.
The Khrushchev era saw the construction of new metro stations in suburban Moscow neighbourhoods and of a motorway belt that became known as the MKAD (Moscow Ring Road). The authorities also tried to address the residential space shortage in the city. They started the construction of cheap public blocks of flats across the city, all to a standard design. This solution made it possible for those who lived in crammed communal apartments and makeshift barracks to get decent housing, with individual flats given to each family. The Brezhnev era’s most ambitious project is arguably Kalininsky Prospect (now Novy Arbat). The top floors of its high rise book-shaped towers offer spectacular views of the city, the river, its bridges and the Ukraina hotel.
Following the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991, Moscow became the capital of the Russian Federation, and since 1993, a federal entity of the Russian Federation.
On 1 February 1995, a law on Moscow’s flag and emblem was enacted. The Soviet-era song My Moscow (music by Isaac Dunayevsky, lyrics by Mark Lisyansky and Sergei Agranyan) was chosen as the city’s anthem.