Sole mates: Russia meets London on this walking tour of the East End

5 June 2014

Sole mates: Russia meets London on this walking tour of the East End

From Peter the Great to Fyodor Dostoevsky, follow in the footsteps of some of Russia’s most illustrious literary and political figures on this walking tour of London’s East End. Starting at St Katherine Dock you'll take in some of the capital’s best landmarks and most fashionable hotspots before ending at The Water Rats, one of Vladimir Lenin’s preferred drinking spots

Text: Maryam Omidi

Long before London earned itself the moniker Moscow-on-Thames, the city was a firm favourite among Russians. One of the most notable figures to have sojourned in the English capital was Peter the Great who arrived at St Katherine Docks (50 St Katharine's Way, E1W 1LA) on 11 January 1698, eager to school himself in the latest shipbuilding techniques. When he wasn’t down at the Deptford dockyards, the six-foot-seven-inch tsar was tearing it up in watering holes across the city where he acquired a reputation for both his prodigious drinking and his unruly behaviour.

UCL lecturer Sarah J Young on Peter the Great in Deptford

From St Katherine Docks, make your way to Muscovy Street (Muscovy Street, EC3N 4AL), taking in the Tower of London on your left where The Royal Mint was housed during Peter's visit. Fascinated by English coinage Peter dropped by the Mint several times and on his return to Russia, introduced English-style coins with milled edges to prevent counterfeiting. Although there's little to see on Muscovy Street today, it's a reminder of the now defunct Czar’s Head pub where Peter stopped in for a drop (or two) of brandy with his entourage.

Passage from Winter Notes on Summer Impressions

Continue on to Whitechapel, stopping briefly outside Angel Alley (84b Whitechapel High St, E1 7QX) to take a moment to imagine the neighbourhood in 1862, when it would have resembled a scene out of a Charles Dickens novel. That was the year that Fyodor Dostoevsky paid a flying visit to the capital as part of a European tour. Writing in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863), Dostoevsky is less than impressed with London with its scenes of poverty, prostitution and debauchery all around. Whitechapel stood out as particularly grim “with its half-naked, savage population”. Nevertheless, he opines, London was an improvement on bourgeois Paris.

Freedom Press's Andrew Meinke on the history of the bookshop

Head down Angel Alley to Freedom Press, London’s oldest anarchist bookshop, passing portraits of radical figures such as Russian thinker Mikhail Bakunin along the way. The bookshop was founded in 1886 by Peter Kropotkin, a Russian nobleman, geographer and anarchist who travelled to Europe after his escape from a St Petersburg jail where he had been imprisoned for his subversive socialist ideas. Kropotkin eventually settled in London where he wrote for the anarchist-communist newspaper Freedom, edited and printed in what is now the bookshop.

Ziferblat manager Sophie Grodin on the concept behind the “free space”

From Whitechapel, it’s a 20-minute walk towards the next destination: Ziferblat (388 Old Street, EC1V 9LT), London’s first pay-per-minute co-working space. (Although not officially part of the walking tour, Calvert 22 Gallery, which exhibits Russian and Eastern European art is on the way if you want to pay a visit. Disclaimer: the gallery is owned by the Calvert 22 Foundation, which also owns The Calvert Journal.) The so-called “treehouse for adults”, Ziferblat was opened by entrepreneur Ivan Mitin in December 2013 to provide a space for customers to use as they wish. Decked out in an eclectic assortment of vintage furniture, you pay 5p a minute in exchange for limitless tea, coffee and biscuits. You can even bring your own food, although alcohol is banned, which makes it the perfect pitstop on your walking tour.

Russian steam baths were introduced to London’s East End in the late 19th century following an influx of Jewish immigrants escaping persecution in Russia. The most famous of these was the Russian Vapour Baths on Brick Lane.

Once you’ve refuelled, head to Banya No 1 (17 Micawber St, N1 7TB), a traditional Russian bathhouse complete with sauna and plunge pool. For the ultimate Russian experience, choose the somewhat sadomasochistic venik massage and prepare to be beaten with bundles of birch, oak or eucalyptus twigs that get your circulation going. Follow up in the cafe with a kvas, a lightly alcoholic fermented rye bread drink, and a side of pancakes smothered in sour cream.

Revitalised, wend your way towards the Grade II-listed Spa Green Estate (1946-9) (St John St, EC1V 4PP), one of three buildings on this walk designed by Russian emigre architect Berthold Lubetkin. Best known for his Art Deco Penguin Pool at London Zoo, Lubetkin was a firm believer in architecture as a tool for social progress. Through his application of Modernist principles to public housing, he revolutionised English architecture with his egalitarian motto that “Nothing is too good for ordinary people”. Just a few minutes away is Islington Museum, home to a bust of Lenin (1937) designed by Lubetkin. The bust was the centrepiece of a monument commissioned by the then socialist Finsbury Council (now Islington) in 1942 as a symbol of fellowship between the USSR and Great Britain. After the onset of the Cold War, the bust, which was placed in Holford Square, facing towards the site where Vladimir Lenin lived from 1902 to 1903, was vandalised numerous times until it was eventually put into storage.

Next head to Clerkenwell Green, home to The Crown Tavern (43 Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0EG) pub and the Marx Memorial Library (37A Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0DU). Although the pub pitches itself as the spot where Lenin met Stalin for the first time, Sarah Young, a lecturer at UCL, debunks this myth. It’s highly likely though that Lenin dropped by for the occasional pint given its proximity to the Marx Memorial Library. It was here that Lenin edited Iskra, the newspaper of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, when in exile from 1902 to 1903, and his office has been preserved for visitors to view.

Make your way north towards Finsbury Health Centre (1935-8) (17 Pine Street, EC1R 0LP), another of Lubetkin’s designs, and according to his daughter, his favourite. Lubetkin’s remit was to design a building that would bring together the borough’s dispersed health services and encourage healthy habits among its residents. The light and airy space was filled with blond wood furniture designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and murals urging patients to “Live outdoors as much as you can” and calling for “Fresh air day and night”. However, just as construction was completed, the Second World War broke out, and the building was used instead for civilian casualties. Although it provides community health services today, the centre is in a serious state of dilapidation despite an ongoing campaign by locals to save the Grade I-listed building.

Next stop is Bevin Court (Cruikshank St, WC1X 9HB), another of Lubetkin’s social housing projects. Straitened times after the war meant there wasn’t the budget for any extras such as a community centre so he built a spectacular Constructivist-style staircase at the heart of the block to serve as a communal meeting space for tenants instead. The building occupies the site of Lenin’s home from 1902 to 1903 and although Lubetkin had hoped to name it after the revolutionary leader, Finsbury Council scotched this plan in the early 1950s when Cold War tensions had set in.

It was instead, without a hint of irony, named after the Labour foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, who made a show of joining the US in its anti-USSR stance. A couple of minutes away on Percy Circus (Percy Circus, WC1X 9EE) is a plaque, erected in 1962, in memory of Lenin’s stay at number 16 in 1905. From here, it’s time to make your way to the final stop for a much deserved drink at the The Water Rats pub (328 Grays Inn Rd, WC1X 8BZ), another of Lenin’s hangouts.

With thanks to Sarah Young for her excellent blog on Russians in London and Maryam Maruf for recording the interviews