Oh how I hate the Winter Gray of Moscow’s streets…. January frosts have come and gone, and suddenly Moscow’s temperatures are hovering at freezing point once again. The snow — which we didn’t get all that much to begin with, as the deep-freeze anticyclones are always light on precipitation of any kind — is melting away fast, and there’s nary a fresh flake in sight. New Year’s trees, which added a bit of festivity to the city over the holiday season, are gone too, and the frosting-like tree lights are soon to follow. At gray times like these there is still one one feature that delights a Muscovite’s eye, and that is central Moscow’s colorful architecture.
Although not as bright and whimsical as that of Prague or Barcelona, many of Moscow’s Old Town streets are lined with beautiful neoclassical houses, painted in soft pinks, blues, yellows and an occasional creamsicle-orange or mint-green. For the most part the buildings are not as ancient as the fantasy time-travel version of me would like them to be: more than three-quarters of Moscow burned down in the Fire of 1812, started by Muscovites themselves in an effort to leave nothing of value behind for Napoleon’s advancing army that still recovering from their devastating victory at Borodino. The Muscovites themselves retreated into the surrounding countryside and watched the city burn for four days. Burnt-out Moscow wasn’t very welcoming of the French, and just a couple of months later, Russians — regrouped army and peasant militia — utterly destroyed the invader. The Short One proclaimed the invasion of Russia as his ‘fatal mistake’ (Hitler is nodding along in his grave right now). It was a mistake from which Napoleon never recovered, as the losses of this invasion (about 90% of his troops, not to mention artillery, cavalry and supplies) enabled the allied European forces to put an end to Napoleon’s Roman Empire 2.0 ambitions.
Sadly, most of Moscow’s architectural heritage had to be sacrificed in the process. The Kremlin — the oldest and most symbolic part of Moscow — was left undamaged, yet the majority of the real, living and breathing city Moscow — the hub of aristocrats and merchants, craftsmen and artists — went down in flames. The fire wholly consumed 6,496 of 9,151 private houses (this total included 6,584 wooden and 2,567 brick buildings), 8,251 retail shops and warehouses (including most of the ancient Kitay-gorod settlement and Zamoskvorechye business district), and 122 of 329 churches. For more on Moscow’s 1812 fire, destruction and reconstruction, you can check out this short but sufficiently comprehensive Wiki entry or Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”
Soon enough the city rather literally rose from the ashes, but although a number of important buildings were reconstructed true to their original form, the majority of ‘old Moscow’ is relatively new not just in age, but in style: manors and townhouses, 5-story high ‘profit buildings’ (multi-apartment houses), theaters, churches, modernized ‘trade rows’ (19th century equivalent of shopping malls), and so forth, executed in clean, neoclassical style, painted in bright pastels, and decorated with white columns and moldings. Many of those building still stand, Soviet-era re-development be damned, and provide such a wonderful, whimsical escape from the monotony of gray winter streets. On a personal level, I am very lucky to live in an old-town neighborhood where nearly every street hides such an architectural gem — or five. Below is just a small sampling of what delights the eye on my neighborhood walk.