Old Moscow In Paintings. Part 1.

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.

Past painting: Louis-Pierre-Alphonse Bichebois. Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed, Beginning of 19th Century.
Present photo: Denis Smirnov, March 2016

The 1925 painting of famous Russian artist Apollinary Vasnetsov, brother of Viktor Vasnetsov, features well-known Red Square of the second half of the 17th century. At that time, the square just started to gain its familiar appearance and was already a center of social and commercial activity for the city and country as a whole. In the painting we see that the Kremlin’s towers already have their pointed tent-shaped tops. To the left is located the Cathedral of Intercession of the Virgin, also known as Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed. The Square itself is full of life, noise, and motion. A clerk standing on the platform is reading a decree to the gathered crowd, while a high-ranked person is leaving the Kremlin in a covered carriage. Soldiers are marching between shops of busy merchants. Vasnetsov himself described life in Moscow’s center as follows: “It is no wonder that the Kremlin has always been the center of the city. It was the very life of Moscow. Red Square was always full with crowds of both busy and idle people, learning news and listening to clerks announcing tsar’s ordinances. From here, news spread out throughout the whole city – sometimes of wars, sometimes of executions, new taxes and exactions. Most likely from here as well, waves of common life, stirred up by boyars’ (court nobility) intrigues and tyranny of rulers, knocked against Kremlin’s strongholds, giving birth to unrest, riots and rebellion. For Moscow Red Square was as the Marketplace and Forum of ancient Rome…”

Past painting: Apollinary Vastnetsov, Second half of 17th century
Present photo: Denis Smirnov, March 2016

On an earlier (1902) painting, Apollinary Vasnetsov depicted Moscow of the time of Ivan the Terrible. This is Red Square of 1550s: Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed is still under construction, and Kremlin walls are white which is a questionable hypothesis for this historical period. Buildings are lined up along Kremlin wall and the square is full of rushing merchants and horse riders. On the right, similar to the previous image, we see a gun turret that did not survive to our time. Compared to the past, modern Red Square looks empty. The Kremlin is now red and looks very different, and the only building along its wall is Lenin’s Mausoleum.

Past painting: Apollinary Vasnetsov, 1550-s
Present photo: Denis Smirnov, March 2016

The painting of another great Russian historical reconstructionist is artist Fedor Alekseev, to whom his contemporaries referred as the “Russian Canaletto.” He gives a picture of a very different, much later Red Square. The artist depicted it completely empty. We see the center of Moscow from the height of a three-story building. From behind The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin (Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed), a densely populated city peeks out, stretching out to the horizon. In the center of the painting is Lobnoye Mesto () where the tsar’s decrees were announced to the public, and executions and public punishments took place. The Kremlin already has its familiar shape, especially noticeable in Spasskaya Tower, but the square itself is still filled with buildings, mostly merchants’ shops.

Past painting: Fyodor Alekseev, 1800-s
Present photo: Denis Smirnov, March 2016

1830-s painting of Karl Rabus depicts Cathedral of Intercession of the Virgin (Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed) from the intersection of Varvarka street and Vasilievsky Spusk (Vasilievsky Descent http://wikimapia.org/1634295/Ploshchad-Vasilyevsky-Spusk ) This is, perhaps, the most well-known cathedral in Russia, both then and now.

In the painting the Sacred Procession is descending from the cathedral, and passersby are bowing down in worship. It is amazing, but from this angle, it seems that nothing has really changed, except for some details. In place of the street from where artist created his painting is the construction site known as Zaryadye, now being developed into a large park, and the house with columns on the right has been replaced with the building of Sredniye Torgovye Ryady (Средние торговые ряды).

Past photo: Karl Rabus. Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed, 1830-s
Present photo: Denis Smirnov, March 2016

However, comparing the previous painting to the next, by Fyodor Alekseev, “View of the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed from Moskvoretskaya Street”, much has changed from the past. This once densely populated location transformed into an off-ramp from the bridge to the river embankment. The whole place is now given to automobiles. It is interesting that the true “point of drawing” is located somewhere inside the bridge’s ramp.

Past painting: Fyodor Alekseev, 1800-s
Present photo: Denis Smirnov, March 2016

In another painting by Apollinary Vasnetsov “Bookshops on Spassky Bridge, 17th Century” we can see the now-filled-in Alevisov Moat in front of Spasskaya Tower on Red Square. This moat was not only the last barrier to the Kremlin’s various historical enemies, but was also home to exotic animals. It had a system of sluicegates to allow parts of it to be drained independently. During the regency of Ivan the Terrible, the section by the Voskresenskie Vorota (Resurrection Gate) of Kitai-Gorod was dry and housed lions sent from England. Thus, the gate became known as “Lions Gate.” In the 17th century, at the time presented at this painting, an elephant lived in the moat. It was a gift the from Persian shah Abbas II to the Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich. Unfortunately, the elephant soon began suffering from a gastric distress and, with an onset of cold weather, died. After the War of 1812, the merchants’ shops along the moat were demolished and the moat was filled.

Past painting: Apollinary Vasnetsov, 1700th Century
Present photo: Denis Smirnov, March 2016

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About The School of Russian and Asian Studies

SRAS specializes in study, research, and travel abroad to Russia and Eurasia.SRAS also maintains this site and provides free info for students studying Russia and Eurasia. Explore our resources to find out more!