Take a plane to Moscow and all you see on your final approach to the airport is a concrete ocean of tower blocks stretching beyond the horizon. From a bird’s-eye view, this urban sprawl appears motionless and grey. However, scratch its surface and you’ll find something different — perhaps not quite the city of “spires and belfries, parks and mansions” captured by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin, but one of distinct and characterful neighbourhoods nonetheless.
Despite 75 years of forcible Soviet urbanisation, which saw a leafy refuge of merchants and monks become a fuming industrial behemoth, Moscow didn’t completely lose its original charm. Some of the city’s neighbourhoods still hide medieval mansions and green courtyards where life flows at a much slower pace and locals kick off their day with a visit to a local bakery. Although these islands of liveability are hardly representative of the entire 12-million strong metropolis, they can teach a lesson in smart urban planning and local resilience. The Calvert Journal brings you a visual guide to Moscow’s most characterful and promising neighbourhoods.
The name of the area literally means China Town, however there are few Peking ducks and lucky cats greeting you in local shops and cafes. ‘Kitay’ used to mean ‘weaving’ in medieval Russian, which partly explains the somewhat chaotic and sinuous layout of the area. Since the 16th century this neighbourhood, just a stone’s throw away from the Kremlin, has been attracting a diverse and colourful crowd — workers, gamblers, immigrants, artists and vagabonds of all sorts — which used to settle around Khitrovka, an infamous open-air market immortalised by Moscow’s preeminent biographer Vladimir Gilyarovsky.
The neighbourhood still oozes a rebellious and slightly anarchic personality. Its semi-derelict mansions accommodate numerous squats, while old monasteries and factories now harbour aspiring designers and artists. The area is also well known for its insatiable nightlife with hip clubs and bars overlooking some of the city’s finest medieval ruins. Kitay-Gorod didn’t see much refurbishment under the previous post-Soviet mayors who arguably did more damage to Moscow’s architectural legacy than all the Soviet leaders combined.
Hidden behind the Stalinist facades of the roaring Garden Ring, this quirky quarter is dubbed Moscow’s own Meatpacking District. Up until the late 19th century the area used to be one of the city’s quietest neighbourhoods, dotted with wooden dachas and mansions. One of them, Leo Tolstoy’s elegant Moscow residence, has luckily remained intact alongside its centuries-old white oak park. However there isn’t much else that reveals Khamovniki’s bucolic past. In the early 20th century, Khamovniki became a major playground for up-and-coming textile moguls that quickly built up this lucrative patch of land with red-brick factories and warehouses.
The rapid development of Khamovniki stalled in the Soviet times, which only added a now-defunct brewery and a couple of brutalist giants to the area. But unlike many other less fortunate industrial ghettos of Moscow, Khamovnki has managed to regain its dynamism and importance as its spacious plants have found new owners in the form of media, advertising and tech companies like Yandex and Leo Burnett — which has also led to the emergence of a lively cafe and bar scene.
Despite its unassuming appearance and crumbling infrastructure, Artplay is probably the most promising area in the city. Cornered by the seedy Kursky railway station and Yauza river, the neighbourhood is a cluster of giant factories — Manometer, Arma and Winzavod — that have been turned into fashionable galleries, cafes, clubs, book stores and even universities. Although this rapid gentrification is nothing new in many cities around the world, in Moscow the pace of change has been particularly astounding, and not without help from the city authorities. Moscow’s chief architect Sergey Kuznetsov is nurturing plans to transform ArtPlay into a hipster Narnia with miles of bicycle lanes, parking for electric cars and pedestrianised embankments. However most of the area’s current tenants fear that such top-down reforms might kill the creative spirit of the area and will eventually squeeze out independent businesses.
This maze of narrow streets around a picturesque pond is completely devoid of any grand-scale socialist edifices, and boasts an impressive collection of Art-Nouveau mansions, which once belonged to writers, artists and their influential patrons. The area’s legendary former residents include Mikhail Bulgakov and Maksim Gorky, and today it is still home to Moscow’s artistic intelligentsia. These days Patriarch Ponds is a major foodies’ destination — new cafes and restaurants sprouting up almost weekly, most of them run by independent chefs like Berezutsky brothers.
The sheer scale of this 1960s-era factory complex is mind-boggling. Its 2 million square metres occupy an entire district of southern Moscow. Up until very recently, the factory was still turning out lorries and clumsy limousines, some claim out of pure inertia as these cars were no longer in demand. Sergey Sobyanin, the incumbent mayor of Moscow, made the transformation of ZIL one of his earliest pledges, and he has kept his word. The factory’s former House of Culture is now home to an experimental theatre collective. Rambler-Afisha, a rapidly growing media company, has also moved its offices to the ZIL area, setting a precedent for other creative businesses.
A taste of old Moscow with a 21st-century twist. The neighbourhood miraculously avoided the bulldozers of the Soviet urban planners and has preserved its old-fashioned atmosphere with colourful churches and cosy piazzas popping up here and there. Zamoskvorechye’s main street has been partly pedestrianised, which has attracted new restaurants and businesses to the otherwise quiet and sleepy area. Plans are now in place to turn the neighbourhood into an experimental ‘smart city’ where new urban infrastructure — traffic lights, bike stations and new types of navigation signs — will be tested for the first time.
Text: Igor Zinatulin
Image: Ilya Volodin
Additional image: Sergey Norin, Valery Belobeev, Olia Eichenbaum (www.the-village.ru)