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The best street in Moscow – Petrovka?

Existing at least since the 14th century, Petrovka is one of the oldest, most prestigious and bourgeois places in Moscow. Personally, I have always perceived it as something more than just a separate street.

It is attractive in that it is a cultural interweaving of adjacent sections of the old city – squares, streets and alleys. At the same time, despite the surrounding tourist area, an abundance of attractions and expensive shops, Petrovka is relatively uncrowded. It clearly does not function as a walking street (although it could easily), and even tourists find themselves here more often by chance. It seems that the most frequent passers-by on Petrovka are those in transit, with a businesslike look, rapidly striding in both directions.

Petrovka arose as a road connecting the Trinity Gates of the Moscow Kremlin and the village of Vysokoye, so named because of the high bank of the Neglinnaya River. The street got its name thanks to the Vysoko-Petrovsky Monastery, built under Tsar Ivan Kalita. Craftsmen lived in the area for a long time. The names of nearby streets still remind of this: Pushechnaya, Kuznetsky Most, Stoleshnikov Lane. From the second half of the 18th century, the nobility began to settle in the Petrovka area, building solid estates for themselves. Since 2008, one of them, the Volynsky estate, has housed the Prosecutor General’s Office, where, of course, I don’t want anyone to find myself. Already in the 19th century, Petrovka was famous throughout the city for its most expensive shops, mostly foreign ones. Commercial premises were usually located on the first floors, while residential premises were located above. Pyotr Boborykin wrote: “The whole part of Petrovka up to Petrovsky lines with Kuznetsky and Stoleshnikov lanes is overflowing with the fashionable trade of foreigners: it’s like Moscow Paris with the addition of Vienna, Berlin, Warsaw.”

With the development of Moscow, two opposite ends of Petrovka were “bitten off” from it and acquired new names – Theater Square and Karetny Ryad. For more than a century, Theater Square has probably been the second most popular tourist spot in Moscow, right after the Kremlin. Once upon a time there was a wasteland, regularly flooded by the Neglinnaya during the flood. The building of the Bolshoi Theater that arose on the site of a wasteland went through a series of rebirths due to constant fires, from a nondescript three-story building to a majestic structure designed by Osip Bove, whose columned facade adorns almost every metropolitan guide today. Empress Catherine II hoped that the foundation of the theater would help our stage directors compete with visiting foreign entrepreneurs. Today it is hard to believe, but after the revolution, the communists seriously considered closing the Bolshoi as a reminder of the imperial past. Fortunately for us, they changed their minds.

Before the full-fledged building of the Maly Theater was built, its first troupes performed in the former mansion of the merchant Vargin, which was located on the same site, back in the middle of the 18th century. The cast consisted mainly of amateur students, as well as former (and non-former) serfs. Servitude made life difficult even for one of the founders of the Maly Theatre, Shchepkin. For a long time he was also a serf and for years he could not buy his freedom.

The next iconic object is located immediately next to the two theaters – the Central Department Store, instantly recognizable by its dark gray neo-Gothic facade. The store was originally known as “Muir and Marylies” after its founders, Scottish merchants. Basically, Muir and Marylies sold clothes, fabrics and haberdashery for a conditional middle class. Chekhov let out a rather cruel joke about this: “Women with plays multiply by leaps and bounds, and I think that there is only one way to deal with this disaster – to call all the women to the Muir and Maryliza store and burn the store” . Today, TSUM performs the same function as always: clothes, expensive accessories, perfume. The first floor is traditionally responsible for the latter. Its space is so saturated with a sharp aroma of perfume that after five minutes you want to quickly go outside in the hope of urgently smelling any non-perfumed smell – even cigarettes, even garbage dumps, whatever, if only it would help to weather the obsessive incense. Much more seductive for me are the aromas in the Buro TSUM restaurant on the top floor of the department store, from where a beautiful view of the Kuznetsky Most opens. I usually order fish here, and the restaurant, by the way, has a special collection of signature spicy sauces. Watching people walking along Kuznetsky from the panoramic window, you feel yourself in the heart of the bustling life of central Moscow.

I cannot fail to mention another restaurant – located a stone’s throw from the Bolshoi Central Department Store in the famous Khomyakov tenement house, popularly known from the movie “Office Romance”. Bolshoi is a pompous creation of the restaurateur Novikov with majestic, classic halls. The atmosphere here is so solid that you involuntarily begin to straighten your clothes. In this prim atmosphere, the names of even the most ordinary Russian dishes, well-known in Soviet canteens, begin to sound like an overseas delicacy. It is not borscht and dumplings that are served here, but Borsh and Pelmeni.

Directly opposite the restaurant is one of the few modern buildings, the business center Berlin House, built under Luzhkov. In Soviet times, there was a square and a cafe “Friendship”. And once in its place was the house of Governor-General Ivan Yakobi, later turned into a profitable building with restaurants and hotels. Pushkin, Turgenev, Nekrasov and Saltykov-Shchedrin visited there at different times.

After walking a few hundred meters towards Karetny Ryad, you find yourself at the door of the magnificent Petrovsky Passage. Having collected more than 50 shops under glass vaults, it was founded by the merchant Firsanova, whose family owned the Sandunovsky baths. After the October Revolution, many retail premises were forcibly closed for a long time. Firsanova herself ended her days in Paris, having emigrated after the revolution. The shops that survived the coming of the communists to power became the object of desire for Soviet fashionistas, as Mayakovsky once mentioned in verse:

With delight, leaving the sunflowers to husk,
raising eyebrows enthusiastically
employee reads:
“Blouse ready.
The last cry of Petrovka”

Perhaps the most surprising period in the life of the passage was the post-war years: on its upper floors there was a huge communal apartment, where Muscovites who had lost their homes due to the bombing were settled.

Petrovsky Passage always reminds me of a smaller version of GUM. Everything here reminds of GUM – the neo-Russian style, the location of the malls, and the huge glass ceilings of the spans. As in the case of GUM, I prefer to come here at the end of December because of the special collections of designer New Year decorations – in such an environment, my soul immediately becomes warm and festive.

A separate (and very important) part of the world of Petrovka is the lanes that intersect with it. Chief among them today is Stoleshnikov. According to statistics, it ranks first in Russia in terms of prices per square meter, 15th in the world! Once upon a time, weavers lived here, making tablecloths – tabletops. And, as often happened in central Moscow, by the 19th century, artisans were supplanted by aristocrats. Stone houses began to be built here only after the Napoleonic invasion. In Soviet times, the lane was known for its second-hand bookshops, and now it’s shops. Some of them this year, such as Prada and Louis Vuitton, for obvious reasons closed. At the same time, many boutiques, including Italian Ferragamo, Damiani and Loro Piana, continue to work properly.

On the corner of Stoleshnikov and Petrovka is Klava, a rare Moscow bar with a special folk-democratic spirit. Here on the dance floor you can meet Muscovites and visitors from various spheres and cities. Whether you’re a fat bureaucrat, a pimply-faced first-year student, or a divorced accountant with three kids at home, no one here is trying to impress anyone, they’re just all clumsily dancing together for their own pleasure. On noisy nights, there is an atmosphere of some amazing cheerful unity with random people, as if you were at a friends birthday party.

If an infrequent conscious tourist comes to Petrovka, then, as a rule, to the Vysoko-Petrovsky Monastery. This magnificent temple ensemble in the style of the Naryshkin baroque – an amazing intersection of ancient Russian architecture and the first Western trends – is the heart and ancestor of Petrovka. The local halls witnessed many troubles: the Naryshkin boyars, whose patrimony was the monastery, buried their relatives who died in the bloody Streltsy rebellion here, and Napoleon’s troops stationed here shamelessly desecrated Orthodox shrines. After a long atheistic downtime under the USSR, when workshops, warehouses and gyms were located within the local walls, at the beginning of the 2000s the monastery again began to live a full-fledged Orthodox life: now there are 11 monks here.

If I rarely enter the territory of this ancient monastery, then I constantly visit the neighboring building – the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. Sculptor Zurab Tsereteli had a controversial reputation under Luzhkov. Many Muscovites accused him of bad taste and excessive patronage from the mayor. Be that as it may, Tsereteli managed to establish one of the best exhibition venues in the capital. The museum has an impressive collection of works by Malevich, Chagall, Lentulov, Tatlin and Kandinsky. These European-style minimalist halls, successfully contrasting with the old building of the Gubin mansion, have been hosting cutting-edge exhibitions for many years. But what surprises me the most is that even now, during the period of cultural isolation of Russia, the museum continues to successfully exhibit Western artists.

I would like to complete my review with another former estate, within the walls of which I also do not want anyone to find themselves – the fenced estate of Prince Gagarin, better known as the Novo-Ekaterininskaya Hospital. This huge building in the style of classicism by Matvey Kazakov ends Petrovka and passes into Karetny Ryad. Before the hospital appeared within these walls, the estate housed the English Club, famous throughout Moscow, so refined that it impressed even the writer Stendhal, who was in Moscow in 1812 as part of the Napoleonic troops.

As an afterword, I would like to add on my own behalf that I would like passers-by to behave a little less indifferently and transitively while walking along Petrovka, and at least sometimes slow down a little and look around more often: it’s worth it.

Photo: shutterstock.com

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