Discovering the Soul of the City Along the Old Arbat
Everything that is wonderful and terrible about this city comes together daily on its famous pedestrian way, the Old Arbat. Come along on the insider’s tour.
By Vernon Howell
Photographs by Luke Tchalenko and Martin von den Driesch
The Old Arbat: this long, crooked street is one of the most remarkable in all Russia, combining classicism with vulgarity, and history with garish modernity. Central to the Arbat’s appeal is the sense of all-year carnival in the air, as the street is awash with contortionists, painters, musicians, dancers and fire breathers. You can sit in one of the outdoor cafes for hours, mesmerized by the infinite number of stories unfolding around you. And while a seat in a cafe may set you back only a few rubles, a flat in the surrounding area can go for as much as $10,000 a month. The area is home to celebrities and artists, all of them drawing inspiration from the Arbat’s special atmosphere.
Standing at the entrance to the street today is the Praga restaurant, one of Moscow’s instantly recognizable symbols. This is appropriate, as the Arbat is a street of restaurants and cafes. The Praga has long been one of the city’s most prestigious eateries, but it was not always so exclusive. Originally it was a dive, nicknamed braga after an especially vicious home brew favored by those too poor to buy vodka. But in 1900 a wealthy merchant named Tara Rikin won the “braga” in a game of billiards playing with only his left hand and rebuilt it, upgrading it to the top-class establishment we know today.
Nowadays it divides two Arbats. To the right, you can find the New Arbat, an unappealing stretch of concrete built in the 1960s on the site of some very old streets dotted with courtyards and Orthodox churches. Although it is not the subject of this tour, it is worth pausing to notice the tiny Church of Fyodor Studit, which stands in the shadow of a towering concrete block across the street. The church is the only surviving building from the original area. Today this duo is an archetypal symbol of the clash of beauty and ugliness, of ancient and modern that makes Moscow such a fascinating city.
The entrance to the Old Arbat is very different. Instead of cars hurtling down a broad thoroughfare, you find yourself on a cobbled pedestrian way surrounded by crowds of people. The carnival atmosphere starts immediately. In the shadow of the Praga there is a row of portrait artists and their subjects, who ply their trade regardless of the weather.
This first stretch also introduces all the architectural styles of the Arbat. There are modest, restrained 19th century buildings interspersed with early 20th century Art Nouveau structures, and, of course, the occasional post-1990 eyesore. A hundred years ago these apartments were rented to doctors and merchants. The owners competed with each other by adding details to the exteriors, leaving some very fine facades, featuring everything from columns to knights to lions. Arbat 23 is an especially fine example of Art Nouveau that housed art studios before the Revolution.
While these buildings may appeal to modern tastes, this was not always the case. The poet Marina Tsvetayeva called the elegant six-story Art Nouveau apartments on Afanasyevsky Pereulok “ugly skyscrapers.” This begs the question: will some of the controversial new buildings, such as the cinema and shopping complex at Number 10, one day be deemed classics?
Probably not. But perhaps that is unimportant, because the Arbat is cheerfully, delightfully vulgar and can swallow bright garish buildings with greater ease than many other areas of Moscow. Stretching the whole length of the street are rows of souvenir stands hawking kitsch: from Putin T-shirts to Soviet flags to miniature busts of Stalin. But it would be a mistake to think that the Arbat is only about kitsch, as there are also many antique shops selling top-notch historical artifacts and objets d’art. Step inside the shop at Arbat 23, for example, and you are immediately surrounded by oil paintings, icons and jewelry. A silver sugar bowl for $1000 or an icon for $2000? Step right this way.
And what about glamour? The Arbat has plenty of it, and not only in the form of beautiful girls parading down the street on the arms of dubious biznesmeni. The Vakhtangova Theater is right in the center of the Arbat. The building’s heavy Stalinist facade may not seem very glamorous, but it is the home stage of two of Russia’s greatest actors: Vasily Lanovoi and Mikhail Ulyanov. The latter starred in the Soviet version of Antony and Cleopatra and also played the war hero Marshal Zhukov on the big screen. Lanovoi, meanwhile, became an overnight idol when Officers came out. Although they are now both over 70, they continue to tread the boards here.
But glamour on the Arbat is not only available to celebrities. For $300 you can be immortalized in a paving slab in front of the Vakhtangova. Alternatively you can put on a show yourself: the street is a popular area for street performers. In the early 1990s, the Arbat became a symbol of Russia’s new freedoms and artists came here to find a public for their work. Writers recited poems and artists displayed their paintings. Today some of the acts are rather bizarre: one the most well known is a deaf Michael Jackson impersonator.
Twenty years ago, however, it was a very different story, as the Arbat only became a pedestrian street in 1986. Prior to that it was a long, dirty lane teeming with Ladas and Zhigulis. The buildings were colorless and divided into communal apartments, while the ground level was lined with shops. In the 1920s and 1930s Stalin even drove through it en route to his dacha.
Walk in the area with a Russian guide and you will learn that for many years at Number 45, where today there is a branch of the popular cafeteriastyle eatery Mu Mu, there was Dieta, which sold the Soviet-era version of health food. The plush Slobodkina Cultural Center at the end of the street was a fishmonger’s and the fancy sushi bar at Number 38 was a shop called Juice, one of the only places where you could get a glass of fruit juice. The interior was lined with vats of orange and apple and tomato juice and for a few kopeks you got a glass and an infusion of vitamin C.
THE TOP 5
THINGS TO DO ON THE ARBAT
Tucked away just off the Arbat at 10 Krivoarbatsky Pereulok, the Melnikov house is Russia’s greatest example of constructivist architecture still standing. Konstantin Melnikov built it as a residence for himself in 1929 and his elderly son lives there to this day. Catch a glimpse of the cylindrical masterwork through the trees.
THE PRAGA RESTAURANT
Feeling aristocratic? Why not step into the luxurious and historic Praga restaurant? If you have a sweet tooth, drop into the Praga’s legendary confectionery shop. Here you can buy gourmet cakes for special or not-so-special occasions or just have a cup of aromatic coffee and a fresh pastry.
SIT FOR A PORTRAIT
The Arbat has long been a haunt for the bohemian artiste. Today, from one end of the street to the other you can find classically trained artists beckoning you to sit for a portrait. Whether you choose to have a serious portrait done, or a humorous caricature, you will likely pay considerably less here than you would in any other Western city. Still, negotiate.
VISIT THE VICTOR TSOI WALL
To many teenagers of the 1980s, Kino lead singer and songwriter Viktor Tsoi was the voice of perestroika. His songs articulated the hopes and frustrations of a generation. After his untimely death, Tsoi’s fans dedicated a crude concrete wall on the Arbat to his memory and today you can see the artwork, signatures and fan letters that have been scrawled on it as a tribute.
HARD ROCKIN’ NACHOS
Cap off your afternoon on the Arbat at the Hard Rock Cafe, where you can kick back on the summer terrace, chow down on the best nachos in town and watch the world go by.
The history of these buildings is more than matched by the Arbat’s back streets. Everywhere you look there are plaques to great artists and writers. Sivtsev Vrazhek Pereulok was home to both the radical thinker Herzen and the revolutionary writer Sholokhov; even Tolstoy spent some time here working on War and Peace. The dancer Isadora Duncan and poet Sergei Yesenin married here. But it’s not the historical connections that are the main draw, but the atmosphere: a sleepy, quiet village in the center of a metropolis. The furious changes of the last fifteen years have passed by many areas. A number of embassies are tucked along these peaceful lanes among old shoe repair shops and simple grocery stores. Many of the buildings still house communal apartments and the nouveaux riches live alongside old communists. There is a sense of faded grandeur as old people while away the days on benches. Perhaps no other major European city has this quietness at its heart. A visit to the church on the corner of Mogiltsevsky Pereulok is like stepping back into the late 19th century.
There are surprises and secrets on these back streets. One of the neighborhood’s unusual buildings is at 4/5 Plotnikov. At first glance it looks ordinary enough: a set of slightly decrepit apartments. But if you look closely at the reliefs on the wall you’ll see…Tolstoy and Pushkin and Gogol…standing among naked ladies…next to Greek and Roman figures. These reliefs led to rumors the building was a bordello. However, the truth is probably more prosaic. The original plans for the Pushkin Museum show it was supposed to have similar reliefs, but they were never used. Somehow they traveled a few kilometers west and were incorporated into the design of a late nineteenth century apartment building.
Another surprise is that many of the grand mansions housing embassies are made of wood. The buildings on Denezhny Pereulok give the game away. Some of them are yet to be restored, and if you look closely at the peeling plasterwork, you can see that even the grand columns and porticos are wooden underneath. This was, of course, a money saving ploy of stingy aristocrats. That the buildings are still standing a century or two later is testament to the skill and craft of the 19th-century Russian builder.
Denezhny leads us back to the Arbat, behind the massive Foreign Ministry building. This Stalinist tower looms at the end of the Arbat like the Eighth Wonder of the World. At night its spire is illuminated and it is hard to keep in a slight shiver when you wonder what dark information is stored in its cavernous halls.
The end of the Arbat has many literary connections. Bulat Okudzhava, the famous poet and bard lived at Number 43; today his statue stands outside Mu Mu. Anatoly Rybakov, author of the perestroikaera novel Children of the Arbat also lived nearby.
In another literary age, a great poet lived at Number 53: Alexander Pushkin. Though he was born in Moscow, the genius spent most of his life in St. Petersburg. Stung by this rejection, Moscow is today covered in unconvincing memorial plaques with statements like, “Pushkin had a cup of tea here in 1821.” This building’s Pushkin connection is more substantial: it was here that the poet lived for four months after his marriage to the celebrated beauty Natalia Goncharova. In fact, he rented the apartment for six months, but he could not stand his meddling mother-in-law, so he left early.
Three years and four children later he was killed in a duel over his wife’s honor. Today his apartment is a small museum that has little in the way of real Pushkiniana, but seeks to recreate the atmosphere of the period with watercolors and historical exhibits.
We end our tour not on the Arbat itself but just behind it, on Kruzhok Square. At one time the Arbat was famous for its cosy courtyards. Now most of them have been concreted over to be used for parking. This spot, however, retains something of the atmosphere of the Arbat of old, commemorated in Okudzhava’s songs. It is quiet, secluded and pretty. People, both young and old, sit together on benches, a stone’s throw from the American ambassador’s residence, Spaso House.
Spaso House takes its name from the nearby Church of Our Savior in Sand, which was built in 1711. This is the only surviving church of three that used to stand on the Arbat. It was made famous in a painting by artist Vasily Polenov that hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery. Moscow Courtyard depicts the view from Polenov’s rented room. Finished in 1878 it is a rural scene, complete with chickens and grass and old women in kerchiefs.
Indeed, for most of the Arbat’s existence – the street was first mentioned in a chronicle dated 1493 – it has been part of the Moscow countryside. The very word “Arbat,” in fact, is thought to be derived from an old Slavonic term meaning “suburb.” Nowadays, it seems like this little suburb is getting even busier every day.
Special thanks to Patriarshy Dom Tours (Tel. 795 0927) for organizing Vernon Howell’s tour of the Arbat.
|PROPERTIES AVAILABLE AROUND THE ARBAT
29 Old Arbat
This 80-square meter apartment overlooks both the bustling Old Arbat and the quiet courtyard behind the building. From the top floor of this five-story building you will enjoy a 20-sq. meter bedroom and a 50-square meter living area with open floor-plan kitchen. Oversized windows make for a sunny apartment and great views.
Rental price: $4,000 per month, negotiable.
Available through Beatrix Relocation Services, Tel. 962 4488.
12 Nikitsky Boulevard
This unique apartment designed in a Japanese style features 76 sq. meters in a prestigious location. The apartment occupies the fifth floor of a six-story early 20th century building. The balcony looks out onto the yard and the interior includes amenities such as a washer and dryer, Jacuzzi and designer furniture. Call today before this gem disappears.
Rental price: $3,700 per month.
Available through Beatrix Relocation Services, Tel. 962 4488.
29 Old Arbat
This lovely 100-sq. meter apartment with two bedrooms, a home office, two baths and a 40-sq. meter dining room is right on Moscow’s vibrant pedestrian street, the Old Arbat. Includes architect-designed interiors, heated floors, high ceilings and air conditioning. Another plus is the building’s well-maintained entryway with video cameras and modern intercom.
Rental price: $5,000 per month.
Available through Beatrix Relocation Services, Tel. 962 4488.