Raising the Curtain on a District of Drama
Given that Anton Chekhov once lived at No. 19, Strastnoi Boulevard naturally has a hint of drama about it – but perhaps more than we expected. We take a stroll around the nearby streets and uncover revolutionaries, rock stars, princes and poets.
By Samantha Gee
One of Moscow’s best-loved sites is a monument to the nation’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, on his eponymous square in the center of town. Although many people associate Pushkinskaya Ploschad with strolling couples and summer days, the statue itself has a more ominous history, as it has been a popular rallying point for political demonstration since an anti-Soviet meeting took place there in December 1965. That event was sparked by the arrest a month earlier of the writers Daniel and Sinyavsky, who were accused of composing anti-Stalinist literature and publishing it in the West. The four-day “trial” — where no evidence could be submitted in their defense — caused an international outcry and left the Brezhnev era echoing the very recent terrible past. Of course, such meetings were not only held in this prominent spot because of a national love for Pushkin, but also because the Izvestia newspaper office is directly opposite on Strastnoi Boulevard. Protesters hoped to grab the attention of the national media; sadly, even demonstrations right in front of the editorial office rarely made it into the paper.
The Rossiya cinema building now dominates the square. This uninspiring gray edifice may not resemble the elegant buildings of Cannes’ Croisette, but it does host the Moscow International Film Festival, which has taken place every other ye ar since 1958. The Khrushchev thaw saw many contemporary international movies screened here, a breath of fresh air for a nation starved of outside influence. As an illustration of just how far Russia has come since those days, the Rossiya recently hosted the Moscow premier of The Bourne Supremacy, which featured exhilarating car chases filmed in central Moscow.
In reality, of course, you are more likely to sit in a traffic jam in Moscow’s center, and if you are stuck here, then to the left of the Rossiya (leading towards the Garden Ring), you’ll see Malaya Dmitrovka Street, which is home to the Lenkom (Leninsky Komsomol) Theater. In the Soviet era, the company’s lively performances, which mixed music and drama, were known for their daring lack of respect for accepted ideas and were popular with radically minded young people. Today, the theater is backed by the state and its performers and staff are some of the most highly paid in the country. Lenkom actors were even able to raise enough money with their own donations to renovate the fairytale-pretty Church of the Birth of Our Lady in Putinky, which stands on the corner of Malaya Dmitrovka and Strastnoi Boulevard.
THE TOP 5
||ANYONE FOR TENNIS? |
Rent one of six outdoor courts for 1000 rubles an hour (less if you book more than one session) at Dynamo Center on 26 Petrovka. Even better, in winter the courts are flooded to create an ice rink and skate rentals are available. Tennis tel. 200 5836. Ice skating tel. 209 6809.
||RETAIL THERAPY |
Shop ‘til you drop on Stoleshnikov Pereulok (which runs between Petrovka and Bolshaya Dmitrovka). It’s one of the city’s chicest streets boasting outlets of Vivienne Westwood, Jimmy Choo, Hermes and Christian Dior to name just a few. When you’re done spending, rest your weary feet and get your hair done at Toni & Guy.
||BIG SUNDAY BLOW OUT |
When you simply want to relax and catch up with friends, go for Sunday brunch at the Marriott Aurora hotel on Petrovka. Brunch is served every week from 12pm until 5pm and costs $52 per person. Children under 5 eat for free and under-12s get a 50% discount. Tel. 937 1000.
||POP IDOL FOR A NIGHT |
If you’re feeling brave, take the floor at one of Strastnoi Boulevard’s increasingly popular karaoke clubs. The totally shameless will enjoy singing to the crowd in the recently opened Moroccan-themed, open-plan Krik (16 Strastnoi). Those of a more modest disposition may prefer a private room at Yan Pen (12 Pushkin Square) where you can sing in Russian, English and Korean.
||PROTEST WAR ON PUSHKIN SQUARE |
Join a ragtag group of pensioners and pacifists that assemble every Thursday night near the Pushkin monument to protest the war in Chechnya. It’s a small crowd, but they’re committed to gathering every week until the war ends.
The latter first appeared in the 1820s, beginning life as a modest alleyway linking the Strastnoi Monastery (flattened by Stalin) and Petrovsky Gates. The rest of what is now known as the boulevard was then a rather dramatic area called Sennaya Ploschad (Hay Square): by day a hay market, by night the haunt of thieves who would rob unsuspecting passersby. Further crime and intrigue tainted the boulevard in 1850 when the wife of nobleman and playwright A. Sukhovo-Kobylin was murdered. Although her body was found outside the city, bloodstains were discovered in the family mansion at No. 9, which led to the playwright’s (wrongful) arrest. Across the road, at No. 5, the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff lived and worked at a women’s music school from 1905 to 1917. He also conducted a private opera on Bolshaya Dmitrovka and his statue now sits in the park on the boulevard.
Coming to the end of Strastnoi Boulevard, at the Petrovsky Gates, you’ll find a statue to one of Russia’s most cherished actors and the original anti-Soviet rock bard, Vladimir Vysotsky. Here he stands with his guitar, chin raised in defiance and arms thrown open to the world. A hugely popular symbol of protest, he was a hero of Moscow’s underground rock culture in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as well as a professional actor — when he was allowed to work. Vodka (and perhaps despair) killed him at the age of 42, but he still managed to have the last word. He died in 1980, right in the middle of the Moscow Olympics when, rather inconveniently for the Soviet authorities, the world’s press had all eyes trained on Russia. A million people were estimated to have followed his funeral procession.
Heading up Petrovka Ulitsa (passing Moscow’s answer to Scotland Yard at No. 38) you’ll reach Karetny Ryad, home of the Hermitage Gardens, which first opened to the public in 1890. The original French meaning of the word “hermitage” (retreat) has been lost in Russia and the gardens now host many a noisy festival complete with brass bands and super-amplified pop music. It was here, in 1898, in the Hermitage Theater, that Konstantin Stanislavsky staged his remarkable production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. In fact, it was his staging of this and Chekhov’s other plays that brought the writer lasting acclaim as a dramatist. Stanislavsky, who created the school of method acting, lived opposite the gardens at 4 Karetny Ryad. The director had left home as a young man, against the wishes of his traditionalist family, to follow his dreams of a career in the theater. He returned not long afterwards as a successful theater director, and with his newfound wealth from productions such as The Seagull, bought the family home from his brother. This was a double victory for Konstantin since his brother had taken a conventional career route and was twice elected mayor of Moscow.
Next door to the Stanislavsky (real name, Alekseyev) family home is Moscow’s first garage, a curving structure built by the architect Konstantin Melnikov in 1910. The location is fitting since the name ‘Karetny’ comes from the word ‘kareta’ meaning carriage and the road was once home to the Moscow Guild of Carriage Makers.
Walking back towards the downtown area, looking over Strastnoi Boulevard, you will find some of this area’s most beautiful buildings, those of the Vysoko-Petrovsky Monastery, from which both Ulitsa Petrovka and Peter the Great took their names. As with many churches, its provenance involves a vision. It is said that when the Muscovite Prince Ivan Kalita passed this site, he at once had a vision of a high mountain covered in snow, which then suddenly melted away. He recounted this story to Metropolitan Peter who explained to him that the mountain was Kalita and that the snow was he, Peter, who would depart this world before the prince. After Peter’s death, as a memorial both to the man and the miraculous vision, Kalita built the Church of Bogolyubskaya, which subsequently became the main church of Vysoko-Petrovsky Monastery.
At the bottom of this very stylish street, on which Moscow’s first fashion house was opened in 1922, we will move from the mystic to end with a rather remarkable story of love. During and after the French Revolution, French aristocrats fled to Moscow and many settled on Kuznetsky Most and Petrovka, opening modish and expensive boutiques. Sometime in 1824, Prince Annenkov, whose family mansion stood at No. 5 Petrovka, on the site of what is now the Berlin House, fell hopelessly in love with one of the young French shop assistants, one Paulina Gebl, the daughter of a French officer. His horrified mother, calling the girl a “French prostitute,” vowed to cut her son off from the family and completely out of her will. Then real tragedy struck. The following year the young Prince Annenkov was arrested for his involvement in the Decembrist movement and exiled for life to Siberia. Despite being unmarried, the beautiful Paulina followed him. So touched was Princess Annenkov by this sacrificial gesture that she forgave both her son and the girl and wished to make amends. But what was she to do? Such a proud woman could not possibly break her vow to disinherit her son. In the end, she left her entire fortune to Paulina, who had by that time married the prince.
This is certainly not the finale one would expect at the end of a Chekhov play, but the streets and lanes around Strastnoi Boulevard offer more enthralling tales of life, complete with murder, miracles and romance in some very beautiful buildings. So take a stroll, you never know what visions you may behold or with whom you might fall in love.
Special thanks to Patriarshy Dom Tours (Tel. 795 0927) for organizing Samantha Gee’s tour of the neighborhood.