The only way to peek into Moscow’s past prior to invention of photography is through paintings and works of masters of historical reconstruction. In this article, we will compare the look of old Moscow with how we see it today.
Fedor Alekseev’s painting “View of the Resurrection and Nikolsky Gates and the Neglinny Bridge from Tverskaya Street in Moscow” depicts some central monuments of Moscow architecture at the turn of the nineteenth century. In the foreground we see a bridge that traverses the Neglinka River, leading to the Resurrection Gate with its two tent-shaped towers and the Iberian Chapel. Next to the gate stands the Main Pharmacy building, which was originally a university. On the right we can see the Arsenal Tower of Moscow’s Kremlin, and on the left is the Mint building.
A few years later in 1811, Alekseev painted the same scene, only this time with people. The Neglinny Bridge appears much livelier. Thanks to the artist, we are able to see an image of many different citizens and get a representative idea of how Muscovites looked at the turn of the nineteenth century. Everyplace is overflowing with life. Carriages, carts, riders on horseback, dogs—all of these were central components to Moscow at that time. Today, everything is different. Only the Resurrection Gate remains unchanged; even the Kremlin appears quite different, while the Neglinka Bridge is no more. Between 1817 and 1819, the river was submerged into a tunnel system, and one is rarely reminded of it except in times of flood. In 1872, the State Historical Museum was erected next to the Resurrection Gate where it stands to this day.
Alekseev provides us with a unique window into what Moscow was like prior to the fire that consumed the city in 1812 during the Napoleonic Wars. In a painting from the 1780s, he depicts a large stone bridge with the Kremlin in the background. Construction of the bridge began in 1643 on the orders of Tsar Mikhail the first, who hired the Strasbourg-based architect Jogann Cristler to design the bridge. Due to the deaths of both the Tsar and the architect, construction was halted; however, on the initiative of the Tsarina Sofiya work resumed and the bridge was completed in its ninth year of construction in 1692. However, it was not located in the same place where the bridge stands now. On one end of the bridge once stood a modern house. The other end stood where Lenivka Street decended to the river. The cost of the bridge’s construction was so great at the time that people would commonly refer to overly expensive things as “More Expensive than Stone Bridge!” Because the bridge was several times wider than many of Moscow’s streets, for a time it housed buildings along its expanse. Thieves and other undesirables congregated under the bridge; one arch along the left bank was so dangerous that people dubbed it, “The Ninth Cell.” At night, the townspeople strove to avoid it. Half a century after the painting was completed, the badly dilapidated bridge was demolished. However, due to the strength of the materials and the quality of masonry, this task was easier said than done. In the end, explosives were required. In 1858, Moscow’s first metal bridge with three arches was built in its stead. In 1938, a modern bridge was constructed 100 meters downstream from the original site. This bridge is adjacent to Borovitskaya Square.
In 1810, Fedor Alekseev produced another painting: a view of the Kremlin from the Trinity Gates. Back then, the Neglinka River still flowed aboveground, and in order to approach the walls of the Kremlin, it was necessary to surpass multiple obstacles. Opposite the wall, on the other side of the river, was a densely packed residential area. Thanks to painting’s incredible detail, we are able to see beyond the first row of buildings and catch a glimpse of the rest of the city’s architecture. Today, of course, such a view is impossible since the towering form of the Moscow Hotel obscures many sights. In place of the Neglinka River, which was channeled underground, and beneath the walls of the Kremlin now stand the Alexander Gardens, which were constructed not long after this painting was completed.
In one of Alekseev’s earlier paintings, circa 1800, we can see the extant Imperial Orphanage, which was built in 1764 as a charitable educational institution for orphans, abandoned children, and the homeless, under the initiative of educator Ivan Ivanovich Betsky. This is one of the only buildings that survived the Napoleonic fire of 1812 and the largest building from Moscow’s pre-revolutionary period. It is very interesting how the Moscow River, which occupies a majority of the painting’s canvas, appeared at the time. Previously, it was teeming with life. Boats and ships of diverse shapes and sizes plied its waters. There were also floating docks. Today, the Moscow River appears even wider, but much quieter and deserted and roads densely packed with cars stretch along both sides of the river.
This picture by Apollinary Vasnetsov—whose work was a major subject of our previous installment on Old Moscow—depicts the Trinity Bridge and the Kutafiya Tower. According to Moscow historian I.E. Zabelin, the first stone of the Trinity Bridge was likely laid in 1367, contemporaneous with the construction of the Kremlin’s walls. In 1516, around the same time that many of the Kremlin’s modern facilities were being constructed, a nine-arched brick bridge designed by Italian architect Aleviz Fryazin came to occupy the space. Back then the bridge was called the Rizopolozhensky Bridge, but later took the new name to match the Trinity Gates. Some of the bridge’s spans obstructed the flow of the Neglinka River; as such, a pond formed upstream the Trinity Bridge, which was also used in the fortifications. The bridge connects to the Kutafya Tower. Perhaps today it appears strange, but back then the fortifications provided a virtually impregnable barrier. Diverting channels allowed the moat to be filled with water from the Neglinka River. The bridge became the only entrance, which could be closed by raising a drawbridge. Around the circumference of the second floor were battlements, landings, and small openings through which boiling tar could be poured over an advancing enemy. Based upon the title of the painting, “The Siege Seat,” one can assume that the city is in preparation for its defense. Numerous traders and locals, along with all they could carry, are crowded around the entrance to Kutafya Tower to climb Trinity Bridge and hide behind the Kremlin walls. Surprisingly, all of these structures have survived to this day. Now they stand right in the middle of the Alexander Gardens. The Kutafya Tower is the only remaining defensive tower of the Moscow Kremlin. In recent times, glass pavilions have been constructed next to the tower and a check point for tourists has been built at its entrance.
This entry was translated by Michael Filitis, who is currently a Home and Abroad Scholar with the School of Russian and Asian Studies.