Evolving City (1): From the Stronghold to the Metropolis
Text and photos by Dr. Olga Zinovieva
The Vorobyovy Gory observation ground is one of the highest points in Moscow, where one can enjoy spectacular views of the metropolis. From there, Moscow looks like a huge bowl full of high-rise buildings housing public offices, international banks and global corporations, famous museums, galleries, exspensive restaurants and boutiques, all connected by a network of streets full of traffic both day and night. Moscow has a vibrant commercial center attracting diplomats and business people from all over the world. Moscow is a huge Tower of Babel spread across an area of 386 square miles within the limits of the Moscow Ring Road which is 50 miles long.
Your attention is caught by the vast area of the Luzhniki Sports Center (1955) just below the observation ground. On your left is a double-decker bridge with ground transportation on the upper level and the metro station Vorobyovy Gory (1959) on the lower level. Further on is a white building with a weird decoration on top, resembling some scaffolding left behind. This is the headquarters of the Russian Federal Academy of Sciences (1970–1980, Yury Platonov).
The eight Stalinist skyscrapers built in a circle around the center are considerable landmarks – seven were built during the Stalinist era between 1948 and 1954 and the last one, seen on the left, appeared in post-perestroika 2005, using the 1950s as a source of inspiration. Another island of tall buildings is Moskva City, being erected at Krasnaya Presnya.
This urban landscape, even with its modernity, is still full of traces of the city’s intriguing past. It takes a while to identify the golden glitter of the domes above the Kremlin churches and silhouettes of medieval monasteries. The past is still with us and its influence is more critical than we think. Without a long running start in history, we are denied the necessary momentum needed to understand the present and to take a sufficiently bold leap into the future. A large part of our present architectural plans, which we call “advanced” or “progressive” either depend on or repeat the ideas of the past. We tend to idealize the old quarters and monuments of Moscow, based on ambitious “general” plans of Moscow by Peter I, Catherine II or Joseph Stalin; at least some of those old quarters have survived. This ideal, romantic attitude of ours has more to it – it has taken over 850 years to sculpt the current form of the city and we like to feel connected with something that we call original or authentic – the nature and drama behind the historic horizon.
The view from Vorobyovy Gory gives us the basic idea of how the city started. It is a living organism with a skeleton and veins, an elaborate network of circular streets, which remind us of forti$ cation constructions and radial streets, which have the same transportation function as in the past. Their names are mostly of geographical origin, carrying the destinations and directions from the ancient city gates: Tverskaya Ulitsa, Ordinka, Minskoye Shosse and many others.
In seeking the origin of Moscow we should go to its center – the Kremlin, which means “fortress” in Old Russian. The official “birth certificate” of the city dates back to 1147, when the Ipatiev Monastery chronicle mentioned a tiny fortified settlement of Moscow between the rivers of Moskva and Neglinka. Only archeologists can show us material evidence that the settlement really existed in the Western corner of the current Kremlin. Several fortresses originally made of wood, limestone and brick replaced one another.
Moscow grew together with its principality, and survived traditional historical dramas of devastating fires, enemy attacks and depopulating diseases. The long rule of Ivan III (1462-1505) was marked by the absorption and annexation of the surrounding principalities step by step – Veliky Novgorod, Rostov and Dmitrov. The unification of the territories around Moscow was completed in the late 1480s. The new political establishment required a new capital, and Ivan III undertook an unprecedented project, the impact of which we can still admire. The first Cathedral of the Assumption (Aristotle Fiorovanti) was buit in 1478; the next steps included the new Cathedrals of Archangel Michael, the Annunciation, Moscow Kremlin Church of the Disposition of the Robe, Ivan the Great Bell Tower, as well as all of the Kremlin walls and towers created by the best Russian masters, and architects from Renaissance Italy. Each Kremlin tower (without its green marquees added in the XVII century) looked like an Italian feudal castle with teeth on top; the walls were very asymmetrical, following freely the riverside landscape in a Russian manner. The Market Square (now Red Square) spread along the eastern wall, the roads came out from five gates and the basis for the XXI century metropolis of ten million people was laid.
In 1480, Grand Prince Ivan III, a proficient diplomat, obtained independence from the Mongolian Golden Horde. His next step in international diplomacy was his marriage to Princess Sofia a Paleologue, a niece of the last Byzantine emperor. When Byzantine fell to the Turks, Ivan III had very good reasons to consider himself a successor to Byzantine statehood. The center of Orthodox Christianity shifted to Moscow. The Byzantine state emblem – a double-headed eagle – became the emblem of Russia.
Initially the whole of Moscow’s population could fit inside the Kremlin, but in the XVI century three more fortifications each with its own life span but with the same significant impact on the urban environment sprung up: Kitai-Gorod (Middle Town), Bely Gorod (White Town) and Zemlyanoi Gorod (Dirt Wall Town). One can still see two patterns of the Kitai- Gorod walls, built in 1535-1538 by Petrok Maly, an Italian architect, contracted by Elena Glinsksya, the mother of Ivan the Terrible. Coming out from the metro station Kitai-Gorod to St. Barbara Ulitsa (Varvarka), a round-shaped lime stone foundation of the St. Barbara Gate comes into view. There is another section of the wall behind the Hotel Metropol next to a recent remake of a brick tower with restaurants and shops. The Voskresensky (Resurrection) Gate under picturesque XVII-century twin tents was destroyed in 1931 and rebuilt in 1996. Now the main squares of Moscow – Manege, Lubyanka and Slavyanskaya follow the historical line of Kitai-Gorod, including its old streets of Nikolsakya, Ilinka and Varvarka, running to Red Square.
The memory of Bely Gorod is reflected in the layout of the Boulevard Ring, which is a semi-circle connected with the Moskva River. The names of its ten famous boulevards with squares – Yauzsky, Pokrovsky, Chistoprudny, Sretensky, Rozhdestvensky, Petrovsky, Strastnoi, Tverskoi, Nikitsky and Gogolevsky indicate where the gates were. The walls and towers of Bely Gorod were erected by Fedor Kyon in 1585-1593 during the reign of Fedor, the last and unhealthy Romanov representative, but actually supervised by Boris Godunov. The whole fortification was knocked down in late the 1770s by Catherine the Great to make room for a ring of Parisiantype boulevards.
In 1591 the last forti$ cation construction of the XVI century – Zemlyanoi Gorod – was also undertaken by Boris Godunov, who had become Tsar by this time. Successful construction of wooden walls and brick towers could not protect the city against internal political battles, and in the late XVI century, Russia entered a period of history called ‘the troubled times’.
Two semi-circles of monasteries and nunneries – one in the north (Nikitsky, Strastnoi, Visoko-Petrovsky, Sretensky) and another in the south (Novodevichy, Andreevsky, Donskoy, Danilov, Simonov, Spaso-Andronievsky) contributed to the fortification system of medieval Moscow. Some of them still exist and keep amazing us with their sudden appearance among boring high-rise constructions. These are little islands of old Russia, which once regarded itself as a legitimate successor to the greatest world empires – Roman and Byzantine, with Moscow as the “Third Rome”.