Tverskoi Boulevard: A History of Tragedy Chic
Come along for a stroll and be transported back in time to a world of passionate aristocrats and tragic poets.
By Vernon Howell
Tverskoi Boulevard, the section of the Boulevard Ring that stretches from Pushkin Square to the TASS building, was the first French-style boulevard constructed in Russia, and to this day remains a popular spot for idlers, poets and dreamers. Traffic may thunder past, yet somehow this treelined pathway retains its idyllic atmosphere. In spring and summer young couples stroll under its leafy canopy, while teenage punks and elderly intellectuals hang out on the benches. It’s a place for promenades, romantic encounters, a place for dreaming up a work of art. That kind of dreaming can be dangerous, however, as the boulevard’s history shows. It is linked with many greats of Russian literature who met decidedly sticky ends…
One of these was Russia’s national poet, Alexander Pushkin. When the 100th anniversary of his birth was celebrated in 1889 a monument to him was erected at the top of Tverskoi, across from the Armenia shop today. At the unveiling, Dostoevsky famously declared: “Pushkin nashe vsyo” or “Pushkin is our everything,” thereby beginning a cult of Pushkin worship that is still very much alive. Eagleeyed readers will have noticed, however, that Pushkin now stands on the other side of Pushkin Square. This is due to a tyrant’s whim: in the 1930s Stalin ordered that the monument be moved to the site of the demolished Strastnoi Monastery.
Pushkin stands in the absolute center of the metropolis, amid billboards pitching Pepsi, T.G.I. Friday’s, Karelia Slims and Panasonic. But take the underpass across the street onto Tverskoi Boulevard and trees and elegant mansions surround you, all thanks to Catherine the Great. Until the 18th century, huge defensive city walls made of white stone stood on the site. Catherine had them demolished to make way for the leafy boulevard, which was soon filled with the city’s wealthiest aristocrats who built mansions alongside it.
An indicator of Tverskoi’s atmosphere in those days can be glimpsed in Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical story Youth, which is set in the 1830s. The writer’s six-yearold alter ego Kolya takes a walk with his tutor: anxious that the boy look decent, she dresses him in a black tie, shines his shoes to perfection and, most importantly, instructs him to speak French for the duration of their stroll on the Boulevard. To speak Russian would be unutterably vulgar and even his name is Frenchified to Nix instead of Nikolai.
This tradition of impossible snobbery is proudly upheld at No. 26a, which houses Cafe Pushkin. One of the city’s finest eateries, a plate of blini with black caviar will set you back $23. Opened in 1999 on the 200th anniversary of its namesake’s death, everything is designed to make the diner feel like a 19th-century noble. The waiters wear period costumes and the decor recalls tsarist splendor, while the menus are written in an antiquated form of the alphabet. This attention to detail also extends to the building’s facade: the cracks and missing plaster you see are intentional and artfully maintained.
Statue of Alexander Pushkin, which originally stood on the opposite side of Tverskaya Ulitsa.
Next door is a palace that once hosted the most glittering balls of Moscow society, which belonged to the grandfather of the composer Rimsky-Korsakov. In the 19th century, aristocrats were socially obliged to give lavish balls at least once a year, and the costs of mounting them often led families into debt. Rimsky-Korsakov, however, was so rich and loved balls so much that he usually gave eight or nine a year. It was at one of these that Pushkin met his future wife, Natalia Goncharova. She was sixteen; Pushkin was 30. The poet spent the next two years persuading her mother that he was a good match for her daughter. Eventually Mme. Goncharova relented, but the marriage was not a happy one. Pushkin was tormented by thoughts that his wife didn’t love him and ultimately died from wounds sustained in a duel fought over her honor. At the moment the palace is lucky enough to be undergoing one of Mayor Luzhkov’s reconstructions and everything bar the facade has been demolished.
The next significant address on Tverskoi is No. 25, the birthplace of Alexander Herzen. The founder of the Social Democrat movement in Russia, he was perhaps the first Russian politicized writer to be sent into foreign exile, starting a tradition continued by Trotsky, Solzhenitsyn and many others. Though his statue stands in the leafy courtyard he only lived in this house for the first few days of his life. He was born to one of his father’s housemaids as Napoleon’s armies laid waste to the city and Moscow burned.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the building was given over to various communist art societies, the like of which were lampooned in Bulgakov’s Master and the Margarita. In the novel, “Herzen House” becomes “Griboyedov House,” and is home to the writer’s union MASSOLIT. Members of the union are notable for their enthusiasm for billiards, gossip, and good food and a singular lack of interest in literature. In 1931, the building became home to the Gorky Institute, the Soviet Union’s most prestigious literary academy. Many noted writers have graduated from its halls, including the controversial contemporary author Viktor Pelevin.
The entrance to the ITARTASS building.
Plaques commemorate two of the writers employed in the institute in the 1930s. The first, Osip Mandelstam, made the profound error of reading his students a poem he had written describing Stalin as a cockroach. Somebody snitched, he was dismissed, exiled, and ultimately sent to the gulag where he died soon afterwards.
The other is Andrei Platonov, author of the fascinating and bizarre novel The Foundation Pit. This book, simultaneously hilarious and deeply sad, relates the story of a group of young communists digging a giant foundation pit for a future socialist palace. Eventually everyone dies and is buried in the hole; their children and grandchildren continue building, but it is clear that the palace will never be finished and that they too will end up in the ground. Platonov worked at the Gorky Institute for 20 years, but not as a professor. He was a yard-keeper, sweeping up leaves and tidying the steps. None of the students had any idea they were in the presence of the man now considered by many the finest Russian prose writer of the 20th century. Unpublished in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, his books are today available in excellent translations from the UK publisher Harvill.
THE TOP 5
||Dine at Cafe Pushkin|
Go back in time to imperial Russia – for lunch. At Cafe Pushkin, the waiters are decked out in period costume, the interior looks like a 19th-century museum and the menu is inscribed in Old Church Slavonic. Enjoy traditional cuisine on the first floor or take the (only mildly anachronistic) lift to the second, where the 24-hour restaurant is located inside a magnificent library.
||Visit the Gorky Moscow Art Theater |
Founded by a breakaway group of die-hard Marxist-Leninists during perestroika. Spend an evening at the Gorky enjoying a revival of a Soviet play and shed a tear for the good old days of bread lines and Cold War propaganda.
Can’t make it to Yerevan? Never mind: you can still visit the Armenia supermarket on the corner of the Boulevard and Tverskaya to stock up on delicious jams and fruit preserves, Armenian pastries, as well as the Armenian flatbread lavash or Ararat cognac.
||Stop by Pushkin’s Wedding Church|
At the end of the boulevard stands the enormous Assumption Church where Pushkin married Natalia Goncharova. Though it was stripped bare in Soviet times, the 17th-century church still maintains a quiet meditative atmosphere. Tchaikovsky was a fan of its magnificent acoustics.
||View TASS’ Photo Exhibit|
Head to ITAR-TASS, the former Soviet information agency. Its windows display a free photo exhibit depicting Russia’s always exciting political and social events. Themes range from Soviet architecture of the ‘60’s to recent war pictures taken by the agency’s field photographers.
by Frederic Thenault
A little further down, usually surrounded by young people on benches, there is a statue of another Russian poet, Sergei Yesenin. This Yesenin looks young and pretty, rather like a male Princess Diana. His life was no less tragic. Yesenin was a gifted peasant lad from the provinces who wrote about the countryside, drinking, and chasing girls. He won fame early and became a favorite of Russian readers. Then he met and married the American dancer Isadora Duncan, twenty years his senior, who took him to New York. By this time, however, he was an alcoholic and the Revolution had bred a hatred of all things modern in him. Manhattan was too much for the bucolic Russian, so Yesenin returned home. He had just enough time to marry a granddaughter of Tolstoy before killing himself in St. Petersburg’s Angleterre Hotel. His body was brought back to Moscow for burial and a ceremony was held in the beautiful 17th-century Church of the Apostle John, which stands just behind his statue.
Poetry, tragedy, death, suicide… phew. The recurring theme of Tverskoi is that Russian artists pay a high price for their brilliance. So if your child is displaying a talent for verse you may want to take his notebooks off him and send him out to play football instead. If he becomes a sports star he might still find himself on the Boulevard, as a news photo in the windows of the TASS building right on the corner at No. 8.
Built in 1976 the TASS “Rubik’s Cube” was for many years home of the official Soviet news agency and thus a primary organ of Soviet propaganda. All TASS journalists, from political correspondents to sportswriters, had to clear their stories with their KGB masters. TASS was also the mouthpiece of the Soviet state, and government announcements on TV customarily began with the famous words: “TASS is authorized to announce…” The organization was renamed ITAR-TASS in the 1990s and still operates today. Squatting like a monstrous concrete toad at the start of the boulevard, TASS remains vaguely sinister, though the photos in the windows facing the street depict only smiling politicians and happy Russian children.
Readers interested in living on Tverskoi will find that many of its buildings are occupied by banks and businesses, and there are relatively few flats available for rent. The residential space in the area is located on the parallel streets Leontyevsky Pereulok and Bolshaya Bronnaya. Both streets contain some jewels. The replica mediaeval building at Leontievsky No. 7 is home to the Museum of Folk Arts, which houses an excellent collection of old matrioshka dolls. Across the street at No. 6 stands the Konstantin Stanislavsky House Museum. Here the great director and founder of the method acting school spent his last twenty years as a determined recluse. He was so terrified of the Soviet secret police that he refused to step outside. He conducted rehearsals in his front room and managed his theater on Kamergersky Pereulok by telephone.
On the other side of Tverskoi is Bolshaya Bronnaya. This prestigious street is especially popular with expats. A flat in this secluded, green and yet very central part of town can go for up to $10,000 a month. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the area was the hub of Jewish life in Moscow. Located at the corner of the street where it meets Malaya Bronnaya is the recently reconstructed synagogue of the Moscow Lubavichi, a community of Hassidic Jews originally from the Smolensk region in western Russia. Led by the great Rabbi Shneyerson, the Lubavichi were the only European Hassidic Jews to survive the Holocaust - the Rabbi was so revolted by communism that he had ordered the wholesale immigration of his followers to the U.S. in the late 1920s. He died in 1995, but stated in his will that it was time for the Lubavichi to return home. Since then 50,000 of his followers have heeded the call. The community is restoring its presence in Russia and the synagogue has become a major center of Jewish life, charity and worship in Moscow. On any given day visitors will see a hive of activity outside. And that’s where this tour ends, in this remarkable atmosphere of hope and spiritual renaissance.
Special thanks to Patriarshy Dom Tours (Tel. 795 0927) for organizing Vernon Howell’s tour of Tverskoi Boulevard.
An 1888 photograph of Tverskoi Boulevard taken from across Pushkin Square.