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The Arbat, Russia

Experienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyager Joshua Brook
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The Arbat is Moscow's most charming and lively pedestrian street. Once a bohemian quarter of the city, littered with cafes crammed full of the capital's intellectual elite, the Arbat still retains a vibrant and artistic air today, with souvenir stalls selling traditional Russian gifts, artists offering original canvases and street performers entertaining the shoppers.

The street boasts an impressive selection of cafes, restaurants and bars, where you can sample everything from a decent cup of coffee and a French pastry, to a genuine Lebanese shawerma (kebab) or a tasty thick milkshake in a genuine 1950s American Diner. The Arbat is a symbol of old Moscow and its name is mentioned in the city chronicles as far back as 1493. In that year the whole city was engulfed in a terrible fire, thought to have been sparked by a candle in the Church of St. Nicholas in Peski, which is situated on the Arbat.

The root of the name "Arbat" probably comes from the Salvonic word gorbat, meaning "hilly ground", although it is equally as possible that the word stems from the Arabic word arbad, meaning "suburb". The latter word may well have been used to describe the Arbat area, as in the 15th century only the Kremlin itself was regarded as the city proper, and the area was used to great caravans of goods arriving from the East, so an Arabic word could well have been assimilated into the local dialect.
From the second half of the 18th century onwards, the Arbat and the maze of back streets that surround it became Moscow's most aristocratic and literary neighborhood and home to the city's intelligentsia. House number 2 features the famous Prague Restaurant, opened in the 1870s by the merchant Tararykin and famed as one of the best dining establishments in Moscow until well after the turn of the century.

The restaurant was built and decorated in sumptuous Art Nouveau style by the architects Kekushev and Ericson, and adorned with mirrors, glittering bronze figures and gilt stucco moldings. It was here in 1901 that Chekhov toasted the first performance of his play The Three Sisters, and here in 1913 that the famous Russian painter Ilya Repin celebrated the restoration of his painting Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan, which had been slashed by an icon painter of the Old Believer sect whilst hanging in the Tretyakov Gallery. The Prague is also host to the annual Rubinshtein lunch, held in honor of the musician and founder of the Moscow Conservatoire.

Just off the Arbat along Serebriany (Silver) Lane, whose name derives from the silver coin mint whose craftsmen used to live here, there used to exist the estate of the newly married Suvurov couple, whose son became the mighty Alexander Suvorov, the great 18th century Russian military commander who fought victoriously in the Russo-Turkish war of 1787-1791 and the Napoleonic wars of 1812. Opposite Serebriany Lane stands Starokonushenny Lane, once home to the philosopher and Moscow University professor, Sergei Trubetskoi, in whose musical soirees the young composer Alexander Scriabin used to play his new compositions.

On the other side of the Arbat stands Kaloshin Lane, where the residence of a Madame Malinovskaya used to stand, the aristocratic lady who stood in as the mother of the bride in the poet Alexander Pushkin's marriage. The same house was later owned by the geologist, geographer and member of the Academy of Sciences, Obruchev, the principal designer of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The lane was also the site of a small 19th century house in which the great writer Count Fyodor Tolstoy once lived. Just around the corner stands the Wall of Viktor Tsoy, built and adorned with messages to honor the famous Russian rock legend who died tragically in a car accident in 1990.

At the junction of Krivoarbatsky Lane and the Arbat stands the oldest building in the area, a mansion dating form the 18th century. In the 1820s it came under the ownership of Count Bobrinsky, the grandson of Empress Catherine the Great and her lover Count Grigory Orlov, and who came under secret police scrutiny for failing to disclose information about the early 19th century Decembrist Secret Society.

Further along the Arbat, Nikolopeskovsky Lane was home to the composer Alexander Scriabin between 1912 and 1915. It was here that he composed his famous Divine Poem and Prometheus and died at the tragic age of only 43. He was buried in the neighboring Church of St. Nicholas in Pesky. At number 5 along the same street lived Pavel Noshchokin, one of Pushkin's closest friends and the man who lent the poet the dress coat in which he was married and later buried. At the end of the lane used to stand a small square, where in the 16th and 17th centuries the Tsar's hunting hounds were kept.

House number 53 on the Arbat was built in the mid-18th century and was home to the newly married Pushkin and his young wife. It was here that the poet held his stag night, to which he invited his friends Denis Davydov and Pavel Nashchokin. The flat was later home to the cousin of the great composer Tchaikovsky, and was where he welcomed in the New Year at the end of 1884. Between 1920 and 1921 the building housed the avant-garde Red Army dramatic theater, to which the futurist writer Vladimir Mayakovsky and the pioneering theatrical director Vsevolod Meyerhold contributed ideas. The building was later turned into communal flats and it was only in February 1986 after considerable reconstruction, that a museum was opened in the apartment to celebrate the life and works of Pushkin.

Sivtsev-Vrazhek Lane used to be the residence of Pushkin's eldest daughter, Maria Gartung, on whom Tolstoy modeled his famous character Anna Karenina. The house just around the corner, at the junction of Plotnikov and Bolshoi Mogiltsevsky Lanes, is adorned with a marble sculptured frieze depicting the writers Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy surrounded by mythological characters, that was originally intended to decorate the portico of the future Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts on Volkhonka Street.

Nearby Denezhny (Money) Lane was the 17th century residential area of the coiners who worked in the Imperial mint. During the late 19th century it was home to the writer and director Zagoskin, whose extensive library drew acclaim from the writer Gogol and who the malicious novelist portrayed unkindly in his novel The Government Inspector. After the revolution the house became the German Embassy and it was here on July 6th 1918 that a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party shot the German Ambassador, marking the beginning of the political uprising that would see Lenin and the Bolsheviks into power.

Along nearby Spasopeskovsky Lane, named after the 17th century church that stands there, is the former residence of the millionaire financier Vtorov, in which Bulgakov chose to host Satan's Ball in his fantastical novel The Master and Margarita. Today the mansion serves as the American Ambassador's official residence.

Not far from the Arbat at No. 32 Glazovsky Lane stands the magnificent late 18th century mansion of General Glazov. Its ownership was later transferred to the renowned patron of the arts Mikhail Morozov, who helped to finance the Moscow Conservatoire, the Stroganov Art School and whose extensive collection of paintings by the famous European and Russian painters Gauguin, Surikov, Levitan and Serov he donated to the Tretyakov Gallery. Morozov's wife, Margarita Kirillovna, was as highly cultured as her husband and is depicted in two of the artist Mikhail Vrubel's most famous works, Venice and The Swan Princess. After the death of her husband in 1903, Margarita hosted regular literary salons in the mansion, where the city's leading intellectuals discussed politics and literature, and later set up the publishing house Put' or The Way.

At the western end of the Arbat visitors cannot fail to notice the imposing Gothic facade of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. Built according to Stalin's specific instructions, the Ministry is one of 7 high-rise buildings constructed in monumental Gothic style to celebrate the economic and engineering prowess and achievements of the Soviet regime. Known as Stalin's "7 Sisters", the buildings include the Ministry, the Ukraine Hotel and Moscow State University. More info on: www.moscow-taxi.com

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