For many Moscovites the Old Arbat street is imbued with an almost mythical aura and a heavy dose of nostalgia. One of the most famed Russian bards, Bulat Okudzhava, even sang “oh Arbat, my Arbat, you are my Fatherland…”
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact source of this reverence. Arbat’s history is very layered. In the Middle Ages it was a major trade route. By the 18th century is was the most aristocratic neighborhood of Moscow, and a century later it became somewhat of an upscale bohemian area, with prominent writers (Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol), academics and (non-starving) artists taking up residence there. Almost every surviving building from that era is a historical monument, both from the architectural standpoint (Style Moderne, or Russian Art Nouveau, made an impact), and because of the people who lived and worked there. Arbat’s artistic association persisted through the Soviet years, with construction of the Vakhtangov Theater in the 1920s. For two decades Arbat was the official route that Stalin’s motorcade used to get to the Kremlin, and the street played a role in a (possibly fictitious) plot to assassinate him. In the 1980’s Arbat became the first pedestrian street in Moscow, a gathering place for alternative youth movements (punks, rockers) and the first area in the still-communist country where private enterprise became allowed.
It was around that time that Old Arbat turned into a major tourist draw, with cafes and souvenir shops catering to the first foreign guests of the slowly opening Russia. For a couple of decades Arbat topped the lists of the must-see Moscow attractions right after the Kremlin and the Red Square.
I went to middle school (secondary school) near Old Arbat (actually, my school was on the New Arbat Avenue, but that’s an altogether different animal, for another day), and used to go there after classes. Arbat’s bohemian air combined with beautiful old architecture and Moscow’s first glossy shops – and one of the few McDonald’s in the city! – made it a really great hang-out spot.
Today, although artists and performers still line the street, entertaining visitors right under the open skies, the place has lost quite a bit of energy of its heyday. Not because Arbat itself has changed — but because the rest of Moscow did. The city center has undergone major renovations, with hundreds of old buildings restored to their former glory. New pedestrian zones have opened up, including Nikolskaya Street by the Kremlin and several streets around the Kuznetskiy Most area. Moscovites and tourists have become a lot more discerning about where they eat — when you can indulge in local organic pike burger and mead cake you are a lot less likely go for your average bliny. Overpriced souvenirs can be bought throughout downtown Moscow, and those in the know head to the virtually endless Izmailovo Crafts Market.
When last Saturday night I got out of a small Old Arbat theater around 10 pm I was shocked at how quiet the street was. Maybe that’s the next stage in Arbat’s evolution — the quiet charm.