The West End: The Arbats
The seventh of a complete guide to the favourite residential areas
Text by Ross Hunter, photos by Julia Nozdracheva, John Harrison
The Arbat is of course the first place that any expat hears of before they get to Moscow: lavishly treated by artists, the first pedestrianised street, lined with tourist-orientated retail and entertainment palaces, handily between the Kremlin and the river, and surrounded by the more important class of embassy. Then there is the vital matter of expat watering-holes, the archetypal TV sports bars where tribal loyalties bow before the great god Cyclops, or is that Skyclops?
The two streets could not be more different in appearance, architecture or amenities. The old Arbat is civilised. It reflects much of Moscow’s history, is lined with noteworthy buildings and sculptures, and is thronged with humanity. The new Arbat is a later creation, modernist in style (if that is the word), free of the burdens of history or tradition and, even if full of folk, really a machine-space not a people place. Outdoor liftmuzak mars the malls. My resident spies warn me that the urban idyll is tainted by traffic. At the end of the Kremlin-to- Kutuzovsky elitni avenue, black-limo priority means longer queues for us proles. At the other end of the social scale, young ‘entrepreneurs’ may be watching your pockets.
But the value of the Arbat area is entirely behind the commercial facades. The enduring memories are to be had behind the bright lights and free of the tourist traps. One of Moscow’s most famous scenes, the courtyard and church painted by Polinov (1878) when this area was the edge of Moscow, has survived urbanization all around. The square is tucked in on Spasopeskovsky Pereleuk. The view is restricted by the mature trees more than buildings, but the feeling is still there. Step forward an era, and Moscow’s most futuristic and most neglected building hides on Krivoarbatskiy Pereleuk. The great architect, Melnikov, was allowed to build his own house in 1927, a rarity in the fledgling Soviet state, and its two interlocking cylinders with honeycomb hexagonal windows was years ahead of its time. Sadly, it is neither open to view nor restored, as it deserves to be. See it before it crumbles away.
The area is an architectural kaleidoscope and the many, splendid pre-revolutionary buildings are best explored during a gentle stroll, with a tourist guide book to hand. Navigating the Arbat is easy, as the eye is constantly drawn to the dominating, gothic bulk of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Arguably the least attractive of Stalin’s Seven Sisters, its odd proportions are explained by the fact that the squat tower design did not pleasing the great leader, so an ill-fitting spire was hastily gummed on top to appease him.
Apart from the touristy restaurants and bars, mostly with prominent brand names, there are unique small places off the beaten track, like the café-studio coffee shop on the corner of Bol. Nikitskaya and Nozhovnie Pereulok (funky goods and books are sold in the basement, and it has a lovely summer outdoor patio area). The boulevard has had a pleasant facelift recently and hosts outdoor music festivals in the summer. Culturally there’s plenty going on, with lots of theatres and music venues, especially if the area is extended to include Bolshoi Nikitskaya. That adds a host of elegant and delightfully individual boutiques and antique shops. At any time of day, or week, there are plenty of goings-on going on. Women’s coffee mornings under BWC, IWC and AWO umbrellas (see childreninmoscow.ru or expat.ru for details).
The special bits
The Arbat: visitors’ Moscow in a nutshell – all the photo opps, souvenirs and bars you could ask for... as well as a good slice of history and culture, all traffic-free.
New Arbat has activity, restaurants, sports bars, bookshops and expats in abundance.
Tucked away between the Arbats is the setting of Polinov’s church, that most evocative painting (see reproduction – original in the Tretyakov).
Buildings & statues. There is a statue for every taste on The Arbat. Gogol’s, just off new Arbat (behind 7 Nikitsky Blvd.), is the most evocative. Best building is the hidden-away and tragically un-restored avant-garde Melnikov House. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is imposing, and is an ever-present compass point.
Best Metro stations. The star-shaped Arbat and the exit from dark blue Smolenskaya are both iconic. Nearby the only 4-line station is worth an hour or two, which is as well, as it always takes me that long to find my way out of it. Smolenskaya is also two stations with one name, on a system where usually one station has two names.
Where to live? You have plenty of choice, from all eras and qualities: top tier and dodgy pre-revolutionary, Stalin-soviet, sixties brutalist and brand-new. So much so that in each direction, there is a seamless transition into another top quality area: Prechistenka and Ostozhenka to the south, the various embankments to the west, Barrikadnaya and the zoo are NW, and towards Patriarshy Ponds to the N and NE. Together, one can safely predict that this is the largest concentration of expats in Moscow. With plenty of renovation already complete, this could be your chance of a pre-revolutionary house in good shape with well-renovated façade and entrance, and near the Arbat.
A sample of special buildings:
M. Molchanovka 8, the ‘Lion House’, opposite the Belgian Embassy, a pre-revolutionary building completely reconstructed behind the original façade and roof;
Stary Arbat 23, a beautiful, original and all too rare old house; Romanov lane, especially no.5, loved by expatriates for its closed yard, proximity to Old Arbat and for its huge apartments by Moscow standards, up to 350m2.
Lovers of the new, try: Grubber House (Arbat 29), Fillipovsky 8, 1st Smolensky 17, B. Levshinsky 11, known as Dvoryanskoe Gnezdo.
Nearby? If you like this area but can’t find what you want, check with the real estate experts. Lots of nice neighbours, but none of them are cheap: all are on the ‘heading-for-GO’ side of the Monopoly board. You name the expensive street, it is within a dice roll of an Arbat or two.
Top 10 +/-
The list of all that matters most
- Expat central: an unrivalled choice of places to meet fellow exiles.
- Not enough Metro stations – and one/four of those will frustrate you.
- Cafés and restaurants for every taste and budget.
- Every foreign sports match is on TV, somewhere.
- Old Arbat verges on being a stage set or museum;
- ... while the New is a warning how to do modern badly.
- Well served by kindergartens and child care clubs;
- ... if too bustling and built-over to be family friendly.
- Must-sees aplenty: Gorky’s house, Melnikov’s house, Pushkin statues and the city centre.
- Unmissable: people watching. – enjoy the varied throng on a summer’s evening.