No metro, but trams on Red Square: Moscow a century ago

September 10

Local historian Filipp Smirnov, editor-in-chief of the magazine Moskovskoye Nasledie (Moscow Heritage) takes a look at Moscow 100 years ago.

Moscow regained the status of the capital city in 1918. It was a far from easy period of time, because the city needed to adjust to the increased population and to seriously do something about its underdeveloped transport system. This was the reason why a large-scale renovation programme was launched in Moscow in the 1930s.

The main difference between Moscow today and in the 1920s was the huge number of horse-driven vehicles. Horses remained a vital part of city life until the middle of the last century.

“Does anyone remember the once popular song by Leonid Utesov about an old coachman which he sung in 1935, the year when the Moscow Metro opened? It was not a metaphor; it was how Moscow lived at the time. The huge number of coaches in the city carried not only people but also goods, for example, glassware,” Filipp Smirnov recounted.

Lubyanka Square before renovation, photographer unknown. 1920s. Main Archive Department of Moscow

In addition to this, many buildings and architectural monuments that existed in Moscow 100 years ago were later destroyed. One of them was the beautiful church of St Paraskeva on Pyatnitskaya Street in the central district of Zamoskvorechye, where Novokuznetskaya metro station is now located. There was also the unique cast iron chapel situated on Mokhovaya Street.

Church of St Paraskeva on Pyatnitskaya Street by  Nikolai Naidenov,  1883

The Moscow City Hall on 13 Tverskaya Street was not as tall. The columns and two additional floors were added to it in the mid-1940s, and the building itself was located 13 metres closer to the roadway: like many other structures, it was moved back so that Tverskaya Street could be widened in the 1930s. Although the building’s façade and location changed, it continued to house the city administration: governors-general before the 1917 revolution and the Moscow City Soviet after that. Standing across from the building up until 1919 was a monument to General Mikhail Skobelev, but the new Soviet authorities, who didn’t think much of the general, replaced it with an Obelisk of Freedom. The equestrian statue of Yury Dolgoruky was unveiled there in 1954.

“Back in the 1920s, you would have seen the Strastnoi (Our Lady of Passion) Nunnery on today’s Pushkin Square. It was an important and very meaningful part of the city centre. It housed an anti-religious museum in the 1920s, but was later closed and pulled down. Standing across from it was the monument to Alexander Pushkin, which stood on the other side of Tverskaya Street, at the beginning of Tverskoi Boulevard until 1956. Today he looks at the spot where the monument used to stand,” the Moscow history expert noted.

Strastnaya Square. 1920s

The Triumphal Arch designed by famous architect Osip (Joseph) Bove on Tverskaya Zastava Square stood at the junction of Butyrsky Val and Gruzinsky Val streets. It was built after the 1812 fire on the route of the returning Russian forces to commemorate their heroism during the liberation of Europe from Napoleon. The arch was dismantled in the 1930s because it hindered the movement of the new means of transportation, the trolleybuses. An exact copy of the arch was built on Kutuzovsky Prospekt in between 1966 and 1968.

Triumphal Arch on Tverskaya Zastava Square by Pyotr Pavlov,  late 19th – early 20th century. Main Archive Department of Moscow

The district where the Triumphal Arch now stands looked completely different 100 years ago. The Kalinin and Kutuzovsky avenues did not exist at that time. The city ended on Dorogomilovsky Val, beyond which there was a cemetery, plots of land for animals to graze on and vacant areas. But that idyll succumbed to civilisation in the 1950s.

“Had we travelled along the Garden Ring 100 years ago, we would have seen quite a few historical and cultural landmarks which are no more, for example, Krasnovorotskaya Square near Krasnye Vorota (Red Gate). First the gate itself, which stood in the middle of the Garden Ring almost exactly across from the current Krasnye Vorota metro station, was pulled down in 1927. Later the Church of the Three Saints, where poet Mikhail Lermontov was baptised, was pulled down for the construction of the Krasnye Vorota metro station,” Filipp Smirnov recalled.

Until 1934, people in Moscow could admire the Sukharev Tower on the Garden Ring, which was built during the reign of Peter the Great in 1695 for the School of Mathematics and Navigation. This is why the tower was over 60 metres tall. Its students could watch the stars above to learn how to master navigation equipment to determine latitude and longitude. When the school was moved to St Petersburg, the tower was converted into the Mytishchi water network and renamed Vodovzvodnaya (water supply) Tower. Two of its floors were sealed up to house a huge water reservoir. The Sukharev Tower was pulled down in 1934 in accordance with the master plan of renovation and redesign.

Sukharev Tower, photographer unknown,  1920s. Main Archive Department of Moscow

Tverskaya Street and Red Square: Fundamental units of ideology

A century ago, Tverskaya Street was a narrow, winding street that looked very different from the current thoroughfare.

“If you asked Muscovites what a truly Moscow-like street should look like, they would most likely cite the examples of Nikolskaya, Varvarka or Prechistenka . But they would have never mentioned Tverskaya Street, which had been nothing more than a road leading towards St Petersburg, even though a huge number of people and cargo entered the city by it. However, it was not as important as it became in the 20th century. Tverskaya Street is an ideologeme, an element of Bolshevik ideology: when the capital was moved from St Petersburg, which was renamed Petrograd, back to Moscow, the Bolsheviks assigned a special meaning to that road towards the cradle of the global revolution,” the historian pointed out.

Another ideologeme is Red Square, which is quite unexpected because this symbol of Moscow 100 years ago was not the city’s main square a century ago.

Moscow’s main square had always been Ivanovskaya Square, where town criers proclaimed the tsars’ orders. Another important square was Cathedral Square with the Cathedral of the Assumption where tsars were crowned. These two places located in the Kremlin had the significance which the Bolsheviks later transferred to Red Square.

Red Square  by Naum Granovsky,  Moscow, 1924-1936. Main Archive Department of Moscow

“Red Square did not have any sacral meaning for our predecessors. It was an ordinary fortification structure used for trading in peacetime. It only became the main city square when country leaders started to be interred there in the Kremlin Wall and the Lenin Mausoleum was erected on the square itself. But all of them are the ideologemes of the Soviet era,” Filipp Smirnov noted.

A reserve tram line ran by the Kremlin Wall across Red Square between 1909 and 1930, which is impossible to imagine now.

Public festivities on Palm Sunday. An electric tram on Red Square,   photographer unknown, 1909-1917. Main Archive Department of Moscow

Another famous tram route is the A line, nicknamed “Annushka” (little Anna), where writer Konstantin Paustovsky once took a job on as a conductor. He has several interesting stories about that period in his life.

 We “preferred the A or Silver Line, known to the passengers as Annie. … The A Line served the shops and the theatres; none of the trams were horse-drawn and the passengers were much more educated and elegant than on the B Line. They paid in silver or in notes,” Paustovsky wrote in his autobiographical novel “Povest o Zhizni” (The Story of a Life).

The A line ran along the Boulevard Ring towards the Prechistenskye Gate where it turned onto the embankment along the Moskva River, concluding the route near the high-rise on the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment. This is how Paustovsky described the historical route:

“Through the open windows of an A line tram, you could hear the rustling of the trees which lined the boulevards. The tram slowly circled the centre of Moscow, past the bronze figures of Gogol and Pushkin, the one so weary, the other so composed, the Trubny Market where the birds never stopped chirping, past the Kremlin towers, the great golden-headed bulk of St Saviour’s and the bridges humped over the shallow Moskva River.”

Bridges and suburbs

If we take a look at the old pictures of Moscow bridges, we will see that they once looked quite different, including the Krymsky Bridge. Back then it was a cubic structure with a limited traffic capacity. And it was completely impossible to run trolleybuses across it.

“Moscow bridges have been rebuilt for a number of reasons: the ideology, the traffic capacity and the rise of the river water. The Moskva River periodically burst its banks, giving city residents a real headache. The last such flood, which was extreme and caused considerable damage, was reported in 1927, when several bridges were completely submerged and it was decided that an end must be put to such flooding,” Filipp Smirnov informed.

Old Krymsky Bridge by Naum Granovsky, 1920s. Main Archive Department of Moscow

Not only the city centre but also the current commuter districts looked different. There were dacha communities and villages in the place of some of them and vacant plots of land and small towns, like Lyublino or Vykhino, in other areas. These towns were Moscow’s industrial satellites that developed according to their own plans. But they were incorporated into Moscow, which was rapidly expanding.


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