The reconstructed Lubyanka building, on Lubyanka Square, still houses Russia's FSB intelligence services.

Lubyanka and the GULAG: a walking tour of Moscow’s history

Published: May 1, 2018

There is always history surrounding us. In a city like Moscow, this can seem overwhelmingly apparent. Moscow has many imposing buildings from many eras – some are immediately recognizable and others only invite wonder as to what stories lay behind their beauty or grime.

The stories of Moscow’s Lubyanka District were recently opened for me through a guided walking tour by Bridge to Moscow, a Russian company that specializes in unique English-language tours. The tour centered on the well-known Lubyanka, but also discussed other structures in the same neighborhood that spoke to the same history. A visit to the GULAG History State Museum finished the day off with a multimedia experience concerning the history that played out, in part, inside those storied buildings.

A postcard showing the original Lubyanka when it was still the All-Russia Insurance Company Headquarters.


The Lubyanka, perhaps the most infamous building in Russia, was originally established in 1898 as the All-Russia Insurance Company’s headquarters. It was then nationalized following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and converted to house the Cheka, the Soviet Union’s secret police. Although the Cheka transitioned to NKVD, KGB, and later FSB, the headquarters always remained the same.

The GULAG system, run by the secret police, rapidly expanded during the Great Purge of 1937-38. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were arrested, sentenced for “counterrevolutionary activities” under Article 58 of the USSR’s Criminal Codes, and sent to the GULAG system that spread across the USSR. Tens of thousands of others were executed before ever leaving Moscow. The Lubyanka became the USSR’s most infamous GULAG processing station. It earned its nickname as the “tallest building in Moscow” during this period, because as they said, Siberia (a euphemism for GULAG) could be seen from the basement.

An expansion of the Lubyanka began in 1940 to accommodate additional prisoners and personnel. An additional story was added vertically and the building was expanded horizontally and absorbed buildings behind it. A grey and dreary apartment building was constructed directly behind the growing building for secret police officers. Only the right portion of the building was completed before the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 – the rest was completed under Yuri Andropov in 1983.

Although the prison is said to be in the basement, some claim it was actually on the windowless top floor. Most prisoners were brought in in the dead of night and led blindfolded through long, convoluted paths to intentionally disorient them. Their “walk time,” which came at random intervals, was held on the roof. Over time, the Lubyanka became a symbol of the Soviet state security organs and political repression. To this day, the Lubyanka still houses the Lubyanka prison.

A half-reconstructed Lubyanka with the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky

A Museum of the KGB (now the Historical Demonstration Hall of the Russian FSB) was opened in 1989. Unfortunately, although the facility still exists, it is not open to the general public (as it is within a highly secure building), and entry is only granted to those with special permits, which are apparently difficult to get. We did not get to go inside.

Interestingly, the first known mention of name “Lubyanka” for this Moscow neighborhood comes from 1490, when Grand Prince Ivan III conquered Novgorod and settled many of its residents in this area of Moscow. The Novgorodians called the area Lubyanka after the Lubyankskiy District in their native city. Just 900 meters northeast of the Kremlin, Lubyanka Square has long been a nucleus of life in Moscow.

Lubyanka Square was renamed Dzerzhinsky Square from 1926-1990 in honor of the founder of the Soviet security service, Felix Dzerzhinsky. A statue in his honor was erected in 1958, but following a failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the statue was pulled down by protestors and removed from the square (but preserved in Muzeon, a statue complex across the street from Gorky Park in Central Moscow). In 1991, the square’s original name, Lubyanka Square, was restored.

A three-minute walk towards the Kremlin will bring you to 23 Nikolskaya Ulitsa, the Shooting House (Никольская улица, 23 – Расстрельный дом). The building earned its name between 1935-50, when the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR oversaw investigations of counterrevolutionary terrorists there. Cases were heard on the third floor without participation of the parties involved, appeal was forbidden and capital punishment carried out immediately, all in the same building. More than 30 thousand people, including military officers, engineers, writers, artists, and other Soviet citizens were sentenced in the Shooting House.

The Shooting House under construction mesh – it is due to repone as a shopping mall.

After the collapse of the USSR, the building was taken into private ownership and is now unmarked and hidden behind construction mesh. It is slated to reopen as a shopping mall “within the next few years.” Directly across from the Shooting House, a new-age restaurant proudly displays cured meat in the window.

On October 30, 1991, an organization called Memorial, erected the Solovetsky Stone on Lubyanka Square to honor those that had been killed by political oppressions. At the time, they were also pushing for the state legislature to mark a Day of Political Prisoners of the USSR on the Russian calendar. In 1992, October 29th was officially set aside The Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions. The new non-state holiday is not a day off and, perhaps most interestingly, leaves out “USSR” from its name.

Since 2007, in an event known as “The Return of the Names,” the name, age, profession, and date of execution of those shot in Moscow during the Great Terror are read one after another by Memorial-organized volunteers from ten in the morning until ten at night at the Solovetsky Stone every October 29th. The Return of the Names has yet to reach the middle of the list.

Although our group tried to see the stone, the area is currently under construction. When our guide approached a police officer to see if there might be an open path to the monument, he looked at us suspiciously and said he’d never heard of such a stone. We had no choice but to move on.

We then transferred via a short metro ride to the GULAG museum, which I’ve previously written about on MuseumStudiesAbroad. Thus, this was my second trip there. However, museums with a new guide and a new perspective – such as that given by seeing additional places in the city that help tether its history more solidly to the place you are in – are definitely worth a second trip.

The day was an excellent reminder of the history that lives all around us, ready to teach us if we are willing to look for it.

About the author

Katheryn Weaver

Katheryn Weaver is a student of rhetoric and history at the University of Texas, Austin. Her primary areas of investigation include revolution and the rhetorical justification of violence against individuals, state, and society. She is currently studying Russian as a Second Language with SRAS's Home and Abroad Scholarship.

Program attended: Home and Abroad Scholar

View all posts by: Katheryn Weaver