A Short Street with a Long History
Discover the neighborhood around Romanov Pereulok, where Sheremetev found illicit love, the Moscow University was born and Stalin’s men were transformed from hero to nobody overnight.
By Stephen Dewar
To the west of the Kremlin, an inquisitive mind can find a small district packed with more history than an H.G. Wells novel. The names Romanov Pereulok and the parallel-running Ulitsa Mokhovaya may not suggest much, but the area is the stuff of espionage, fairy tales, and nightmares.
A good place to start is the Lenin Library. From the corner of the library where you can see the Manezh, which has been undergoing reconstruction since the fire there on the night of the presidential elections in March, walk about fifty yards up Ulitsa Vozdvizhenka until you come to Romanov Pereulok on your right. On the corner, facing you across the street, is a yellow and white, four-storied building. Constructed in the 1770s it was bought by Count Nikolai Sheremetev. He ran a theater and, as was the custom then, all the theater employees – singers, dancers, actors, actresses, stagehands and so forth – were his serfs. Sheremetev had a number of affairs with his actresses, but there was one girl who won his heart completely. Known as “Pearl,” her beautiful singing voice also leant her the name “Nightingale.” The count wanted to marry her, but there was a big problem. Under the very strict laws of the day, an aristocrat could not marry a serf. So, being a resourceful girl, Pearl bribed a priest to forge documents showing she was a well-born Polish lady. The marriage took place and the happy couple set up home here on the corner of Romanov Pereulok. Sadly, their happy existence was quickly interupted. One of Sheremetev’s relations denounced him to Catherine the Great.
Catherine was furious and had Sheremetev flung in prison and the marriage invalidated. Determined to make a terrifying example of him to ensure no other nobles were tempted to follow his example, she decided to put him on trial. However, after two years the preparations had still not been completed and the Tsarina died. She was succeeded by her son, Pavel, who loathed his mother and was a theater lover. He promptly freed Sheremetev, formally ennobled the lovely Pearl and acted as best man at their second nuptials. Sheremetev was so happy that, as his wedding gift, he freed all his serfs – the first time anyone had ever done such a thing in Russia. A true fairytale romance with a happy ending.
THE TOP 5
|STOP IN FOR A BITE
Dine in or carry out at the Italian eatery Tesoro on Romanov Pereulok. The restaurant has live piano music every evening. Separate room for pizzeria. Dinner for two without alcohol $50 and up. 4 Romanov Pereulok, Tel. 937 7730, 11:30am-midnight.
|CATCH A MOVIE IN STYLE
The high-end Romanov Cinema boasts George Lukas sound technology and ultra-comfy seating. Three theaters play the latest releases in Russian and a couple swanky bars keep everyone cheerful. All tickets cost 1,000 rubles. 4 Romanov Pereulok, Tel. 937 7606. Buy tix online by credit card at www.romanov-cinema.ru.
|POSE FOR A PICTURE WITH FYODR
Have your picture taken beside the statue of Dostoyevsky outside the Lenin Library. The literary sage guards the steps to Russia’s greatest library.
|SPY THE DEVIL AT PASHKOV HOUSE
Before the Lenin Library was built, a library was housed in nearby Pashkov House. It’s the white, colonnaded building you can see from ulitsa Mokhovaya. It was the setting for Mikhail Bulgakov’s dramatic fire in The Master and Margarita. Hopefully, the devil has now returned to his inferno and you won’t be disturbed by him or his bizarre companions, such as the giant black cat.
|SHED TEARS FOR THE MANEZH
Scope out the 19th-century Manezh, clad in scaffolding due to the “accidental” fire that gutted the building on the night of the presidential election earlier this year. Admire the bas reliefs of cavalry officers that remain and the speedy work to create underground parking.
A very different epoch of Russian history is associated with the next building along the street, No. 3 Romanov Pereulok. A large brown structure, comprising two wings and a central connecting block, the main section of this building is set some 50 meters back from the street. It was built by one of Sheremetev’s descendants. However, after 1917 the building was taken over by the state and used as a residence for much of the top brass of the Communist Party and the Red Army. With 200 apartments or more, that meant many officers. Quite a few are commemorated in plaques on the exterior walls. Some are dim bulbs from the ranks of the apparatchiki, forgotten even by many older Russians. But others are synonymous with their eras. Semyon Timoshenko, an incompetent Minister of Defense, was one resident, spared from execution simply because he was Stalin’s brother-in-law. Less fortunate was Mikhail Frunze, who rose to become commander-in-chief of the Red Army at the end of the Civil War. When he was promoted to Minister of Defense in 1924, Stalin began to perceive him as a rival. Frunze failed his annual medical check-up the following year by being stabbed to death in the examining hospital. He is thought to have been Stalin’s first high-profile victim.
In a fascinating example of how Soviet history was constantly rewritten, down to airbrushing out “traitors” from photographs of party dignitaries, two of this remarkable building’s most famous residents are not commemorated – Marshal Zhukov and Nikita Khrushchev. Zhukov emerged from WWII as the Soviet Union’s most brilliant strategist and field commander – certainly in the eyes of the West; Eisenhower invited him and his wife to visit the United States. Though that stirred Stalin’s paranoia, Zhukov’s true downfall did not come until later.
After Stalin’s death, Zhukov became Minister of Defense and started trying to modernize the Red Army, cutting the number of troops and building up the Soviet Union’s nuclear capabilities during the 1950s. The old guard fiercely resisted this and plotted against him. Eventually, in 1957, Zhukov was dismissed and expelled from the Communist Party on the bizarre and unprecedented charge of “Bonapartism.”
Khrushchev himself, the only one of the seven leaders of the USSR not to lose his office through death, apart from Gorbachev, who lost the country he ruled instead, was very much a man of the people. He liked walking to and from work between Romanov Pereulok and the Kremlin and talking to Muscovites he met along the way. Indeed, it was he who declared that the Kremlin should be open to the public, something hitherto utterly impossible. One Soviet stalwart, whose apartment was in the Kremlin, was appalled. “If you let people in,” he shouted, “They might ask me questions.”
At the end of Romanov Pereulok, turn right on Bolshaya Nikitskaya and walk down to the main street, Ulitsa Mokhovaya. If you take another right and walk a few yards until the end, you will be outside a yellow building adorned with columns. This building was originally part of Moscow University (today, Moscow State University), founded by Mikhail Lomonosov in 1755. The son of a prosperous Archangelsk fisherman, he first studied to become a priest but decided this was not for him. Displaying remarkable intellectual talent, Lomonosov went abroad and became the first Russian professor at Guttenberg, a German center of scholarship. He later returned to St. Petersburg, where he was the first Russian academician there, all the other posts being held by Germans, French, British and others.
But Lomonosov was not happy there (he frequently shouted abuse at his German colleagues) and wanted to establish a university that would be open to what, today we would call middle-class children. The problem was that he did not have enough money. Fortunately, one of his St. Petersburg students, Ivan Shuvalov, was a particularly handsome young man and was a lover of the much older Empress Elizabeth. Knowing that Elizabeth would not be likely to support Lomonosov’s vision, he asked her for £2,000 so he could do something special for his mother’s birthday. Elizabeth was thrilled at the idea, but insisted that he should take £10,000. Lomonosov thus got his money and was able to buy the land and develop the university. Of course, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Elizabeth wanted to be involved in Shuvalov’s mother’s birthday celebrations, so a big ball was held on the appropriate date, January 26. Everybody was happy and since that date is also the saint’s day for Saint Tatiana, it is no surprise that Tatiana is the patron saint for Russian university students.
Indeed, as you face the building you can see the Church of St. Tatiana to the right. It is not architecturally fascinating from the outside, but it has certainly witnessed some strange events. One of Russia’s greatest writers, Gogol, author of, among many other works, “Diary of a Madman,” himself went crazy towards the end of his life. Increasingly paranoid, he was convinced his “enemies” were trying to poison him. So he starved himself to death. The Orthodox Church considered this to be suicide and refused to let him be buried in consecrated ground, but the open-minded priest at St. Tatiana’s decided otherwise. Terrified that he might be buried alive (thereby inspiring Edgar Alan Poe’s tale on the same topic), Gogol said in his will that he should be let lie in an open coffin until his body started to decompose before being buried. This was duly done at St. Tatiana’s, but it did not stop rumors from spreading that Gogol had indeed been buried while still alive. In 1952, the centenary of Gogol’s death, Stalin ordered the body exhumed to see if he had tried to scratch and claw his way out of his tomb. He hadn’t.
Go back towards Bolshaya Nikitskaya and cross the street. To your left is the first building built by Lomonosov for his Moscow University. You can reflect on the fact that these two buildings were the source of some of Russia’s greatest writers and thinkers. Turgenev, Lermontov, Hertzen and many others were alumni. It was here in the 1840s that the two great schools of thought about Russia’s place in the world – the Slavophiles and the Westernizers – were born.
The next building, currently covered in scaffolding and tarpaulin, is of particular interest to Americans. Built on Stalin’s orders between 1932 and 1934 in neoclassical style, it was the first U.S. Embassy and remained so until the late 1950s when the current building on the Garden Ring opened. An extraordinary Cold War coup by the U.S.S.R. took place here in 1955. Khrushchev had succeeded Stalin two years earlier and there had been something of a thaw in US-USSR relations. The pupils of a Moscow school invited the then American ambassador to visit them. He duly turned up and the children presented him with a beautifully carved American eagle. They asked the diplomat to hang it in his office as a constant reminder of the eternal friendship between the peoples of the United States and the Soviet Union. The delighted ambassador did so. It was not until a Russian agent, Popov, was trying to establish his credentials for defecting to the West, that the Americans learned that every word uttered in that office had been recorded by KGB bugs placed inside the eagle for years. Popov was caught and shot before he could get out.
All considered, a short walk here is a long trip through Russian history.
Bookworming at the Lenin Library
The Russian State Library, still colloquially known as the Lenin Library, houses a collection of over 43 million items, some of them dating back to the 6th century. In today’s world of electronic cataloguing systems it is a step back in time to see that for most materials readers depend on a manual catalogue made up of 7.3 million paper cards. If you find that daunting, be consoled by the fact that the library staffers have over 17 million cards at their fingertips.
Foreign visitors can obtain a pass that will allow access to some rooms of the library. Bring any form of ID translated into Russian and your legal residency registration. With a pass you can request publications for use, but you can’t take them away with you – this is not a borrowing library.
3/5 ul. Vozdvizhenka, Metro: Biblioteka imeni Lenina, Tel. 202 5790. Hours: Mon-Fri 9am to 8pm; Sat 9am to 7pm. Registration desk that can issue you a pass: Mon-Fri 9am to 7pm, Sat 9am to 6pm. Closed Sundays and the last Monday of each month.