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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Living Here

Life Along the River
With quiet, tree-lined streets, a riverside promenade and some of the finest examples of Stalinist architecture anywhere, Frunzenskaya and the surrounding Khamovniki region represent Moscow city living at its best.
By Vernon Howell


View of Frunzenskaya from Park Kultury.

Stroll for a few meters behind Park Kultury metro station on Komsomolsky Prospect and youll find a classic Moscow contrast. One of the most beautiful churches in Moscow, the striking St. Nicholas of the Weavers, stands next to a busy road lined with multi-story buildings teeming with traffic. The St. Nicholas, with its white walls, ornate red and green window frames and shining golden cupolas, is perhaps the finest surviving example of the 18th century Russian baroque style. Now, however, it marks the entrance to one of the citys most desirable neighborhoods, an area of plush modern penthouses, monumental Stalinist apartments, fine restaurants, and ultimately the vast Luzhniki complex, which for fifty years has been the center of Russian sport.

When the church was consecrated in 1682, however, the scene was very different. Moscow had not spread beyond what is now the Garden Ring and the St. Nicholas stood in a village of weavers called Khamovniki. As the nearby Moscow River often flooded its banks, much of the surrounding land was swamp and the weavers could only cross it by hopping across bumps that stuck out of the marshland. All that remains of the village today, however, are a few houses on a single street, Ulitsa Lev Tolstoi. The white stone house at No. 10 is the oldest in this part of city, dating from 1689. It was the office of the guild of weavers, with a meeting hall upstairs and a shop on the ground floor. The servants of Moscows richest nobles would often come here to buy fine textiles for their masters houses. The nobles themselves preferred to avoid hopping across swampland. In 1882, however, one famous Russian count settled in Khamovniki: Lev Tolstoy. At the time he was planning his novel about Moscow factory workers, Resurrection, and wanted to be close to the city and its people. Tolstoy, however, despised the metropolis. Of it he wrote: "Stink, stones, luxury, poverty. Depravity. Villains have gathered together, looted the nation, and recruited soldiers and judges to have their orgies protected."

The MDM entertainment complex.

By the late 19th century the weavers were no longer independent and had been organized into crowded factories. Indeed, at No. 18 stands the former Giraud textile factory. Tolstoy lived across the street at No. 10. He made the heroine of his novel Resurrection a much-abused female textile worker ultimately forced into prostitution, revealing the sin and corruption of the city. Tolstoy himself, however, lived in a big wooden house with a beautiful garden and an orchard. Today it is an excellent museum that focuses on the period after the Counts conversion, when he was a pacifist and a vegetarian who sought a life of simplicity. Thus Tolstoy labored in his garden himself, chopping wood, planting seeds and harvesting his crops. In the morning he took his horse to the river for water. He wore peasant clothes, stopped shaving, and even stopped drinking the morning coffee he had taken for decades, as he considered it a superfluous luxury.

Alas, poor Tolstoy. His house today is surrounded by everything he despised: luxury, decadence, frivolity. Next door at No. 23 is a brewery and beer restaurant. The factory at No. 18 is now Kosmik a combined bowling alley, billiard hall and venue for hard rock concerts. Further up the street you can play paintball in a converted factory called War and Peace.

A Stylish Swampland

When Tolstoy lived in Khamovniki, his house was located at the very edge of the city. The land near the river was still very marshy, and prone to flooding. But in the 1930s the construction of the Moscow-Volga canal regulated the water level and the riverbank was lined with granite, thus transforming the area. It wasnt until the 1950s, however, that building began in earnest. In 1957 the Lenin Stadium at Luzhniki was completed, just in time for the opening ceremonies of that years International Festival of Youth. An avenue had also been added to connect this massive arena to the city and thus Komsomolsky Prospect was born, named in honor of the flower of socialist youth participating in the festival.

Crossing the Andreevsky pedestrian bridge.

Komsomolsky Prospect is a long street of mostly uninspiring Khruschev-era architecture. Standing out at Komsomolsky 13, however, is a neoclassical mansion with four white columns. The walls of this house have borne witness to numerous interesting events. Built in the 1720s for the English manager of the consolidated Linen Manufacturers, it later passed into the hands of the army. And in the 1820s Shevsky Dom, as it was then known, became the headquarters of Russias first secret political society when a number of officers the famed Decembrists organized an anti-tsarist meeting in its halls. They wanted democracy and liberty for the Russian people. They got exile in Siberia. In more recent years the mansion has housed the Union of Writers of the Russian Federation. In the Soviet era this organization played second fiddle to the mighty Federal Union responsible for all the republics of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, it achieved brief notoriety during perestroika when three of its members, authors Bondarev, Rasputin and Prokhanov, edited the Russophile, anti-semitic, anti-American, anti-NATO magazine Our Contemporary. Though Bondarev and Rasputin are now dead, Prokhanov is as full of life as ever. He edits the ultra-nationalist newspaper Zavtra, which youve probably seen being sold by militant grannies outside metro stations. Across the street from Shevsky Dom at 16/18 Komsomolsky stands a former military barracks, now the HQ of the Moscow Military Orchestra. Those who like the sound of brass bands might want to consider renting an apartment in the new residential complex on adjacent Kseninsky Pereulok, where the windows facing north also enjoy fine views of the Kremlin.

Further along, at Frunzenskaya 28 stands MDM, the former Moscow Palace of Youth. This monstrous example of crass Rossiya Hotel-style modernism was completed in 1980 for that years Olympic Games. Built for and run by the Komsomol, at one time enthusiastic young communists gathered there to sing patriotic songs and hold rousing youth rallies. These days its a huge entertainment and shopping complex, complete with sushi restaurants, clothing boutiques, a cinema and a concert hall. One of the first musicals in Moscow premiered here a couple years ago an English language version of 42nd Street. Currently popular is a musical derived from Ilf and Petrovs famous satirical novel, The Twelve Chairs.

Artillery and River-Boat Dining

Perpendicular to Komsomolsky Prospect, 1st Frunzenskaya Ulitsa is a pleasant walk through trees and little parks. It terminates, however, at the corner of the Russian armys Department of Artillery, an enormous Stalinist building designed both to express the military might of the Soviet Union and to scare the pants off people; it succeeds admirably at both aims.

THE TOP 5
1

MAMA ZOYA

This sensibly-priced authentic Georgian restaurant, which is housed in one of the floating monstrosities permanently moored along Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya, is a perennial favorite. The clientele is a mix of well-to-do Russians, Georgians and expats. The upper floor has a tendency to get smoky, so request a table on the open-air terrace in back, and savor the fabulous views of Gorky Park across the river as you enjoy your meal.

2

ANTIQUE ROW

Head to the small row of antique and consignment shops that stretches between 3rd Frunzenskaya Ul. and Khamovnichesky Val. Youll find everything from Soviet kitsch and old matryoshka dolls for a few dollars, to a one-of-a-kind, hand-carved armoire for $20,000.

3

DESIGN CENTRAL

Both Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya and Komsomolsky Prospect are lined with high-end design, kitchen and furniture boutiques. If youre fixing to decorate your up-scale flat, or you just want to find out whats hip, expensive and au currant, duck into any of these snazzy storefronts and browse to your hearts content.

4

FRESCO

This fashionable yet laid-back Italian eatery is set back from the street beside the Horizon movie theater on 1st Frunzenskaya Ulitsa. While away an evening on the shaded deck with a friend and a bottle of Chianti, and forget that youre just a stones throw from the city center.

5

MANDELSHTAM PARK

This little patch of greenery hidden behind the imposing MDM entertainment complex got a major facelift last year. Its now one of the cleanest and most peaceful spots in Moscow for a stroll along tree-lined footpaths or an afternoon sitting on a park bench watching the swans swim by.

The Department of Artillery lies on Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya. After the Khamovniki swamp had been tamed, the first stage of new construction took place here, facing the river. The apartments that were built along the embankment are among the finest examples of Stalinist classicism in the city, and were occupied by well-placed Party apparatchiks the faceless, gray bureaucrats who ran the Soviet Union. The house with the spire at No. 24 is perhaps the most interesting; officially known as the House of Former Political Convicts, the grand, spacious apartments in that building were given to superstar Bolsheviks who had suffered exile and imprisonment under the tsar. At least the tsar had let them live: most were later shot on Stalins orders.

Today, however, political murders and the Soviet Union are ever-receding memories. The area is known as the home to Moscows greatest ballet school, an intense training ground for future Bolshoi Theatre stars that has been around since 1773.

And the real estate along Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya is extremely popular, especially among expats workers with families, who are attracted by the serenity, the parks and the relaxed atmosphere. Consequently, apartments here can go for up to $10,000 a month, according to Beatrix, a real estate agency that specializes in high-end properties.

Away from No. 24, floating on the river, a pleasant sight awaits the eyes of those tired from walking. In the last five years a number of boat restaurants have opened along the embankment. From Skazka Vostoka, with its slightly sinister row of black jeeps parked outfront to the backpacker favorite Georgian restaurant Mama Zoya, these eateries provide great views of the river and also of Buran, the Soviet space shuttle that lies stranded across the murky waters of the Moskva in Gorky Park.

Near the restaurants a bridge leads to the park Neskuchny Sad. For almost a hundred years this bridge carried trains across a different part of the river. Then Mayor Yuri Luzhkov had it disassembled and rebuilt stone by stone further downstream and it reopened as a pedestrian walkway five years ago. When the arch was moved, Luzhkov, in typical flamboyant style, stood in front on a motorboat, cap in hand, surrounded by balloons, no doubt enjoying himself enormously.

The Fate of Luzhniki

West of the embankment, the Luzhniki sports complex can be bewildering. First of all, its huge. Second, its difficult to reach. Between the road and the stadiums there is a sprawling market, divided into two sections. The first section, of covered pavilions, is more or less legal and sells goods 10-20 percent cheaper than prices in the center, due to low rents. The second section is a chaotic mishmash of tents, railway cars and tables selling cheap clothes, toys, and electronics: a bootleggers paradise, prone to occasional raids by city police, but always mysteriously reopening.

Luzhniki itself consists of many arenas and stadiums. There is a swimming pool, a large arena and a small arena, tennis courts, soccer fields and athletics courses, not to mention the HQ of the Russian Olympic Committee. There is also a Museum of Sport, with exhibits on Soviet and Russian sporting champions. In fact, Luzhniki is the epicenter of athletic and sporting services for all Muscovites, and not just professional athletes. The clubs for tennis enthusiasts are especially popular, and have been ever since the days when Yeltsin and the New Russian elite were first photographed with rackets in their hands. Nor is sport the only activity to take place in the stadiums of the complex. The Palace of Sport, which was built for ice hockey and figure skating championships, regularly doubles as a concert venue. Among the international acts to have performed there are Rammstein, Kraftwerk, Turkish star Tarkan and Deep Purple.

The centerpiece of the ensemble, however, is the colossal Luzhniki (formerly Lenin) Stadium. When it was opened by Khrushchev in the late fifties it was one of the Soviet Unions great showpieces the largest stadium in Europe, capable of seating 103,000 people. Unfortunately, no expense had been incurred for comfort. Spectators had to endure narrow wooden benches and almost mediaeval toilet facilities. Happily, after a mere twenty years the stadium was rebuilt for the 1980 Olympics. The comfort factor was increased considerably, but the stadium could now seat a mere 80,000 people. It was here that the grand opening ceremony of the 1980 Olympiad took place, and here also that the games official mascot, Misha the Bear, was untethered and sail into the sky and float away forever.

In recent years Moscow has once again been pushing to host international sporting events. In 1997 the city put a roof over the stands in hopes of attracting the European soccer championships. Alas, the builders placed the cranes for erecting the roof directly on the playing field and destroyed the delicate drainage system underneath. The first time a game was played in rain after the construction the field flooded and the players had to practically swim for the ball. A decision was made to replace the grass field with Astroturf but Astroturf is forbidden by international soccer governing body FIFA. Consequently the Russian national team can no longer play games at Luzhniki and the vast arena is now home only to the mediocre Torpedo Lokomotiv.

Now architects and city officials are hunting for other ways to revive Luzhniki. One plan a design developed by an influential Moscow architectural firm and under serious consideration calls for the construction of an artificial enclosed ski hill that stretches across the river from Vorobyovy Gori to Luzhniki. Who knows, we may be skiing across the Moskva in a steep glass tube by December 2005.

Special thanks to Patriarshy Dom Tours (Tel. 795 0927) for arranging Vernon Howells tour of the neighborhood.







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