Imagine New York’s Greenwich village stuck within a few blocks of the White House, the Pentagon and Congress. In Moscow’s hippest area, Kitay-gorod, old and cozy pockets of courtyards and parks on both sides of Pokrovka Street coexist with the ominous walls of the Kremlin and the headquarters for Federal Security Service, where in Soviet times the KGB senior officers signed orders for mass arrests and executions.
On these warm days and nights of what Russians call the Velvet Season, flocks of tourists march around Moscow’s historic center, along the narrow alleys of Kitay-gorod and Chistye Prudy neighborhoods. The heart of what remains of historic Moscow is booming these days with craft beer bars popping out almost on every corner, new restaurants with innovative cuisines, creative parks and hidden clubs, inspired by historical myths and in the face of ideological contrasts.
The Russian metropolis with a population of more than 12 million people seems immense, but if you are in an anthropological mood and curious about the use of Moscow’s oldest corners, its graceful pre-revolutionary alleys behind the KGB headquarters, if you feel like getting a taste of hipsters’ nightlife or discovering, unusual secret places, put comfortable shoes on and begin to wander.
Walking tours are in high fashion this season. We have become used to seeing crowds of tourists on our Potapovsky Lane, where nearly every house is a story or monument of architecture. Dive under the arch of Potapovsky, 12, the building with towers, shaped as a knight’s castle, and you will discover the red and white Sverchkov’s Chambers built in late 16th century. By a pure miracle the merchant Sverchkov’s building survived fire in 1812, when Moscow was burnt to the ground ahead of the Napoleon troops’ invasion. In the same courtyard with the old merchant house, Chambers Suzuran bar offers exotic cocktails and art-house movies on its shadowy veranda.
On a recent evening a couple dozen tourists’ faces were turned to the House with Animals, a beautiful piece of Moscow’s Art Nouveau, a landmark of the neighborhood Chistye Prudy or Clean Ponds. The group’s guide, a middle aged lady was telling the stories behind the mysterious white creatures on the blue building: in the early 20th century, the artist Sergey Vashkov, the author of the owls, lions, dragons, chimeras and other beasts of the bas-relief, was inspired by tiny imaginative animals decorating a 12th Century cathedral in Vladimir, Russia’s medieval capital.
Two tall male pedestrians in black designer clothes briefly joined the walking tour to listen to the guide’s interesting story about historical connotations. But the two were pressed with time—they were heading to get drinks with friends at the Bar & Atmosphere, a vibrant restaurant with deer horns on the red brick walls and then head to dance all night at the Dissident, a gay club hidden in a tiny backyard on the opposite side of the pond from the House with Animals. Most Russian gays have given up struggling for their rights and enjoy semi-underground parties at a few local nightclubs. Prices here are fairly affordable for local youth: the Dissident’s male visitors paid $11 and female $16 for the entry tickets on Saturday night.
The velvet season, so valuable before the endless months of gloomy weather, was taking over the Clean Pond, named so after Peter the Great’s friend Alexander Menshikov cleaned a stinky and marshy puddle and banned locals from using it as a dump. Sweet shisha smoke soared over Shater, tent in English, a restaurant with cozy verandas, floating on the pond. At one of the tables, Andrey Babitsky, editor in chief of a science magazine PostNauka, observed the park around the pond. “I spent some of my happiest nights here during the Occupy Abay protest,” Babitsky waved in the direction leafy park.
In 2012, thousands of anti-Putin protesters camped on this green boulevard. After arrests and political repressions, the community that was born during protests at the Clean Ponds is distant from political battles; but the activists, including Babitsky, are still going strong, devoting themselves to social work, community building and educational projects.
The veranda filled with people. Hip youth headed to the Amphitheater, an open-air archeological museum around the remains of Bely Gorod, or “White City, one of the original defense rings around Moscow which was originally constructed in the 16th century under the tsars Fyodor and Boris Godunov. For more than two centuries the stone belt surrounded the old town along what we know today as the Boulevard Ring, until Empress Catherine the Great ordered it torn down. Lovebirdsand beer drinkers gather on the steps of the Amphitheater every night to observe the old white stones glued together with modern cement.
In Stalin's, era black KGB vehicles picked residents of these neighborhoods up in the early mornings. In the post-Soviet, criminal 1990's, the population of these neighborhoods was changing again: mafia bosses, businessmen and politicians bought big apartments with high ceilings nextdoor to the old, survivors of Moscow intellectual families.
An interesting judo cult is developing by the pond; a memorial board on the club’s wall says: "The monument for Kodokan Budo was built in 1820 and reconstructed in 2006." Every night, chubby Russian men in kimonos roll around the basement floor, exercising martial arts. Sure enough, a picture of a smiling Vladimir Putin in his kimono, signed by Putin, decorates the club’s window.
The walk down the hill of Kitay-gorod is always eventful. Many metropolises have Chinatowns these days but although in Russian Kitay means “China” and Gorod— “town” there is no Chinese trace in the etymology of the area’s name—by one of the likely versions, the name came from Italian “citta,” or citadel. In the 16th century a tall stone wall around this neighborhood stretched all the way to the Kremlin's wall. There is a lively new park across the street from Moscow’s oldest synagogue with a free basketball court, accessible for night walkers. Craft beer is huge on Pokrovka, thanks to the month-long World Cup parties—crowds of fans from all over the world must know this area really well.
Since the end of the Soviet era, decades of gentrification swept across the old town, blurring old cultural layers, creating new ones.
“I found my place here, in the epic neighborhood, where we all met in the underground squat on Malyutinsky in late 1980's,” Sergei Shutov, known as the father of Russian avant-garde art, told The Daily Beast. As with many Muskovites, Shutov likes to walk around the Clean Ponds and Kitay-gorod neighborhoods. Or, with views out over the colorful old rooftops of one of the world’s most historic cities, to light up a cigarette on his balcony.