Sunday, 6 May 2012

What happened to all the stately homes?

It's easy to imagine, when walking around parts of Moscow, that the entire city was founded by some sort of crazed builder cerca 1950. There are a lot of identically run-down apartment blocks that were originally put up as short-term solutions to the accommodation shortage, but which have somehow managed to limp on into the modern day, despite the fact that everyone is continually expecting them to fall down. One day they will, and everyone will have the satisfaction of telling their friends, "I told you so."

Residential block, Moscow:
Not architecture's finest hour. Photo from
In reality, however, Moscow is at least 850 years old, and probably older. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing left that is actually old, because people invading Russia have a nasty habit of burning the place to the ground (I'm looking at you, Golden Horde and Crimean Tatars), and if it looks like they might forget, the locals do if for them (see Napoleon). However, the French left 200 years ago, which gave the local aristocrats about a hundred years to get down to the serious business of building stately homes before they were all massacred by the Communists. So what happened to all the stately homes?

A lot of them are still here.

Просмотреть Усадьбы на карте большего размера

Map created by

I know - that is a lot of stately homes. And they turn up in the most surprising places. For example, every day when I get the tram to school, the route is basically down one street and turn right, but at one point the tram tracks take a massive detour round a big red building.

This is the good half of the building. Has a bit of graffiti and blocked up windows, but otherwise intact.

Definitely some sort of gate.
The building itself is semi-derelict. On the other side to the photo, it is bounded by an overgrown garden and most of the windows are smashed in. But it definitely looks like it was once some kind of gate house. And if you walk down to the road, the picture is even clearer.

So what was it the gate house to? Well, through the trees on the other side of the road you can make out some sort of big house, but I'm pretty sure they don't want visitors. Partly because there is a sign saying Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics, which is the kind of thing people like to keep secret, and partly because if I jump up and down by the fence surrounding it I can just about see what is on the other side - two more fences. Three fences in a row is generally a keep out sign (although my friend says that if you go round the side there is a place where the fences are broken and you can climb through). Until I summon up the courage to do that, according to Google, this is what I am missing out on:

Photo from

Photo from
Not too bad, right? I should have been a Russian physicist.

The estate is called Черёмушки (Cheryomushki - this is still the name of the tram stop there), and although the origin of the name is not definitively known, the most common story is that it comes from the word черемухи (cheremukhi - bush cherry), which supposedly used to grow here. This may be complete rubbish, however, and there are other stories, even other plants, that could have given the estate its name (including черемошка - cheremoshka - wild garlic). Although you do have to think, would anyone really have named their estate "wild garlic"?

Anyway, when I was trying to find out the history of the place I read possibly the most boring essay ever written since the beginning of the world, which I will now summarise for you: in the last four to five hundred years, not much happened here. Legend has it that the manor was originally owned by Boris Gudanov, and it then passed through a series of families, none of whom appear to have spent much time in the place, because they were all so rich that they had multiple estates. A couple of them were hanged by their feet and then thrown off buildings, probably when someone realised that, as a method of execution, hanging someone by their feet is exceedingly slow. The only other interesting person to have owned the estate was Duchess Anastasia Golitsyn, who was a favourite of Peter the Great, was at one point arrested for treason, and ended her days being a clown for the Empress, whom she used to make laugh by crawling around on her stomach picking up gold coins. From this we learn that she had no pride, and the Empress was a sadist. 

Eventually the estate was bought by the Yakunchikov family, who renovated it in 1909 to look like it does today, although the red building the tram goes round is actually older, from the end of the 18th century. After the revolution the place was nationalised, the house stripped and its contents sent to Moscow. Yankunchikov did survive though - he emigrated in the early 1920s, so if he has any descendents, they are probably now members of the Assembly of the Russian Nobility (there really is one - their webpage is here). According to some people, Trotsky lived in a very aristocratic style in the house from 1918-1922, complete with servants etc, but I couldn't find anything that would corroborate this. The estate became a collective farm, then a rest house, then a training centre for military vets, and then after the war it housed the omnious-sounding Laboratory No. 3, which later became the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics.

Схема усадьбы Черемушки
This is what the estate used to look like. To the bottom right is the gatehouse the trams now go round. Photo from
Unfortunately, in the mean time, the area around the main buildings changed from the above picture to a collection of hideously ugly apartment buildings, one of the first regions in Moscow to experiment with the sort of low-cost, no-soul housing developments than later became common. At the time, however, the government was very proud of it. They even commissioned Shostakovich to write an operetta about the place in 1958.

This type of apartment block is, thankfully, out of fashion. But it did manage to provide the plot for the Russian version of It's a Wonderful Life (in that it's happy and shown at Christmas) - Ирония Судьбы (Ironia Sudbi - the Irony of Fate). In this film, the hero gets incredibly drunk and ends up getting on a plane to St Petersburg by mistake. He is still drunk when he gets there, but because in Soviet times there was not much variation in street names between cities, and no variation at all between apartment blocks, he manages to get a taxi to "his" apartment and even unlock "his" front door and fall asleep in the place without realising that he is, in fact, in completely the wrong city. The real owner of the apartment then comes home and hilarity ensues. They eventually fall in love and by the end of the film it looks like they will live happily ever after. Of course, they made a sequel twenty years later in which it transpired that in fact they hadn't got married and instead had spent the time being miserable.


  1. Hello, this is a wonderful blog site. I am trying to find information on Vetrova. We are a theatre company in London and producing Turgenev's Fortune's Fool which opens in November. Are there any estates in Vetrova that I could research? Many thanks, Steven