Time and neglect have taken their toll on what was once a beautiful estate at Khitrovka. The architectural finery is lost along with a third of its territory. All that is left are memories of a rich and colourful history. The poet Fyodor Tyutchev spent his childhood here and later Mayakovsky and Erenburg were inmates in a prison on the site. Sofia Kuvshinnikova - the prototype for the heroine of Chekhov’s story The Grasshopper lived here with her husband. This article in the series on the history behind HSE looks at the complex on Khitrovka.
The Ostermans and Tyutchevs
Four houses built at different times on two adjacent lanes are now part on a single ensemble. There are records of who owned the territory of the whole complex as it stands today going back to the mid 18th century. The house which is now Building 10, 4 Khitrovsky Lane, was then the heart of the property, and today it is the centre of the complex.
The first recorded owners are the Princes Golitsyn who sold the estate in 1767 to the Gentleman-in-waiting Mikhail Semyonovich Pokhvisnyev. After his active part in the palace coup of 1762 when Catherine II (the Great) came to the throne, Pokhvisnyev was promoted rapidly through the ranks. In 1763 Catherine signed a decree to found a benevolent home to educate orphans - the Imperial Children’s Home which was housed in a building constructed specially on Solyanka Street. Pokhvisnyev was appointed first custodian of the home, and settling in near by he build a three storey stone house which in the ensuing years underwent several transformations. The main house stood in the centre of the estate, its facade facing Maly Tryokhsvyatitelsky Lane, and behind it stretched a large garden.
In 1776 the Count Feodor Andreevich Osterman, a Moscow governor bought the estate. One of the most erudite men of his time, Osterman had a wonderful library and was a regular visitor at the Slavic-Greek-Latin Academy (the first higher education establishment in Moscow). He was a brilliant Latin scholar and art lover.
When she was 22 in 1798, Ekaterina married the young officer Ivan Nikolaevich Tyutchev. The young couple went to live on his estate in Bryansk where among other children their son Fyodor was born (named after her guardian) and would become the great Russian poet.
In 1804 Feodor Osterman died and Ekaterina decided that to save her aunt from loneliness the whole Tyutchev family, with baby Fyodor should move into the house on Tryokhsvyatitelsky Pereulok.
Detailed descriptions in the archives make it possible to say exactly where the young poet spent his early years. A three storey brick building divided the estate into two - the cour d’honneur on one side and on the other, beautiful garden sloping into terraces towards Podkolokolny Lane. There was a large balcony going onto the courtyard on Malo Tryokhsvyatitelsky Lane. A flight of stone steps lead up to the main entrance and to the first floor. In the courtyard there were three wooden outbuildings, a coach house, stables and five wooden structures with cellars, barns and storehouses. There was a large pond in the garden an orangery and several stone structures.
Anna Vassilievna died in 1809 leaving the estate with its three houses and everything in them to Ekaterina. But it soon became clear that Ivan didn’t like living there and although he was a mild mannered man he insisted and in 1810 the Tyutchevs sold the estate to a French viscount, Francois Joseph d’ Izarn de Villefort.
D’Izarn de Villefort wrote a vivid account of the burning and robberies during Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow which was published in the historical literary journal Russian Archive in 1869. He describes the fire in his own house, how he saw it leap over the walls of Kitai Gorod and within half an hour the flames were coming close to his garden fence. The estate was soon engulfed in flames. He managed to save an elderly lodger in one of the outhouses by persuading him to jump out of the window. But the fire all around made it impossible for them to get away and half blinded by smoke they spent a miserable night sheltering behind a wall in the garden.
They were lucky to survive. All the wooden buildings were burnt to the ground and the main house badly damaged. D’Izarn couldn’t or had no taste for repairing the estate and sold it as it was to Suzanna Grigorievna Kalustovaya. She remained the owner until her death in 1818. After which the treasury purchased it from her heirs.
The Myasnitskaya Constabulary
At first the former estate was adapted into the Moscow ober-politzmeister’s home. Then the main house became the Myasnitskaya constabulary. From 1825 it became a fire station depot as well. The police and fireman shared the premises and they added a tall wooden watchtower which had a view of the whole district and a signalling system with a pole and balls that went up and down it to indicate the intensity of the fire and which part of the district it was in.
Until they were replaced by motor vehicles in the 20th century, the fire engines were drawn by horses chosen specially for their size and colour. All the horses in each fire station around the city had the same colour coat - Myasnitskaya’s were red. Whenever the firemen were called out, crowds stood by to watch and everyone knew how to read the signals on the watchtower and recognised which district the horses were from by their colour.
The police station was a public attraction not just when the firemen came out. It was surrounded by interesting people. In the 19th century Moscow had particular laws to punish public disturbance and petty offences. For example, petty thieves caught red-handed, both men and women were given a broom and a cross was chalked on their back. They were obliged to sweep the street in the place where they were caught, spend the night at the police station and, in the morning, sweep the area around the station without changing their clothes. After that their name would be placed on a register of thieves and they were allowed to go home.
Along with the petty thieves, those who had been sentenced to birching might also spend the night in the police station. It was common practice. The judge would give them a note with the number of strokes to be administered (usually between 10 and 20) and they were taken to a police station. If they arrived there in the evening or night they would be put in a cell to await their punishment in the morning.
Several famous people were detained for various reasons in the Myastnitskaya station.
The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky for example. His youth was littered with arrests. In 1909 when he was 15 he was arrested for the third time for helping female political prisoners attempt an escape from the Novinsky prison. Mayakovsky was moved from Basmannaya to Meshchanskaya to Myasnitskaya constabulary. A fellow inmate V. I Veger wrote about Mayakovsky’s stay in his memoirs. (His description is of a remarkably purposeful and grown up youth.)
Extract from V. Mayakovsky v vospominaniyakh sovremennikova - V Mayakovsky in the memoirs of a contemporary, M 1963
We sat down together. He had watercolours. At the time he wanted to paint and had persuaded the guard to give him permission to come into my cell and paint me. He would spend several hours sometimes with his paints and paper in my cell.
I still have a portrait of me from that time. He sat me on the windowsill with my feet on a stool. He painted me mainly in blue. You could make out my chest and feet below on the stool.
During the sessions a guard usually sat with us to make sure we didn’t have some kind of criminal talk. But we just chatted innocently on harmless matters.
Mayakovsky was our brigade leader. We had exercise time together and all the inmates met in the prison yard. When we were there one day, the question of a leader arose. Mayakovsky had proved himself an organised fellow and so we chose him. Part of his job was to oversee the preparation of food, and maintain contacts with the outside world, to know what was going on inside and outside, to know how each of us behaved in interrogations to keep an eye out for betrayals and treachery...
Mayakovsky was our leader throughout our stay.
Another famous inmate at Myasnitsky station was the writer Ilya Ehrenburg. He was just a boy, only 17 years old when he was imprisoned in a cell there for taking part in revolutionary activities. His first volume of memoirs, “People, Years, Life” bears witness to those times, I was taken to Myasnitskaya constabulary. The regime there was tolerable. Each minute cell had two bunks. Some of the guards were kind and allowed us to walk in the corridor, others told us off. I remember one, when I asked to go to the latrine he said, “nevermind, you can wait..”. The warden was an ignorant man; when the prisoners were brought books to read he got angry - he couldn’t tell which were seditious. I saw his denunciation, he told the guard to confiscate the essays by Ibsen and the poetry almanac my friends brought me. One day he exploded - “What the devil! They brought you a book about the ‘knut’ [knout - a heavy whip used to beat criminals and political offenders, banned in 1845]. That’s not allowed! You won’t get it!” (Later I learnt that the book which had frightened him was by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun.)
V. Radus-Zenkovich was also doing time in the Myasnitskaya station. At the time I thought of him as a veteran - he was thirty years old. It wasn’t his first stint in prison. He had been an emigre. My neighbour was also an ‘old fellow’ - with grizzled hair. When I talked to him, I tried not to let on that I was only 17. Once the governor brought me a literary journal. I gave it to my neighbour, who only after an hour said, “there’s a letter for you here”. Beneath some of the letters there were some almost imperceptible dots. The book had come from Asya. I blushed with joy and shame. For several days I couldn’t look my neighbour in the eye - I thought feelings were an unacceptable weakness.
We were allowed to walk in the tiny yard among enormous snow drifts. Then suddenly the snow went grey, began to sag - spring was on the way.
Sometimes we were taken to the bathhouse. Those were wonderful days. We were marched along the pavement, passers by stared at us criminals, some with surprise and some with pity. One old woman crossed herself and shoved a five kopeck piece into my hand. I was on the outermost edge as we filed past. In the bath house we took our time washing and steaming ourselves, and felt like free men.
For these outings we were accompanied by soldiers from the gendarmerie. They got into conversations with us and told us they respected us as we were politicals and not just thieves. Some of them agreed to deliver letters for us to the outside.
Myasnitskaya police station was very close to the infamous Khitrovsky Square, the rough morals of its inhabitants were described brilliantly by V. Gilyarovsky (author of the popular social history Moscow and the Muscovites, 1926). He was also a regular guest, not an inmate, but an actual guest at the constabulary where the heroes of his stories, the policemen Rudnikov and Lokhmatin worked.
Every police station had its own doctor. From the end of the 1860s, the police doctor at Myasnitskaya was Dmitry Pavlovich Kuvshinnikov. His four-roomed apartment was on the top floor right under the watch tower. He lived there with his wife Sofia Petrovna, nee Safronova. The couple were well-known in Moscow. Both of them were gifted and made their mark on the city’s cultural scene. Many writers and artists of the time were their close friends.
A literary salon gathered at the Kuvshinnikovs’, around the brilliant Sofia Petrovna. Contemporary memoirs include a detailed description of Doctor Kuvshinnikov’s apartment by the writer and translator T. L. Shchepkina-Kupernik, “There was nothing in the husband’s room except a bed, tiny table and chair and three little blue jugs with Everlasting flowers on the windowsill. The dining room was in the “Russian style” - instead of chairs and tables there were wooden benches, a painted sideboard with fantastical blue and pink flowers on leaves, and cloths embroidered with red cockerels hung from the walls. Sofia Petrovna’s sitting room was the most spacious and was furnished with turkish divans and fishing nets instead of curtains which she decorated in an unbearably bright golden colour. It was all quite original and created the atmosphere of an artist’s apartment. She also put in a mezzanine with a spiral staircase leading up. The was a bedroom on the mezzanine and a pet stork. The stork only recognised its mistress and on her command would dance and flap its wings, bump against a tardy guest, or lie on the floor playing dead and not moving for a long time” (T. L. Shchepkina-Kupernik, Dni moyei zhizni (The Days of My Life), 1950).
Many artists visited Sofia Petrovna’s salon and the landscape painter A. S. Stepanov who lived nearby on Pokrovsky Boulevard used to enjoy playing chess with Dmitry Pavlovich. When Ilya Repin was in Moscow he would call on them and Kuvshinnikov was a model for one of the figures in Vasily Perov’s famous painting Okhotniki na privalye - The Hunters at Rest.
The Kuvshinnikovs were mad about hunting. Perov didn’t include a female figure in his painting but all the faces are recognisable - The man telling the story on the left is Dmitry Pavlovich, in the middle is his friend Doctor V. V. Bessonov and on the right another doctor, the young N. M. Nagornov.
Sofia Petrovna was a good artist on her own account. Pavel Tretyakov bought a number of her paintings for his gallery.
Another friend of the family was the playwright Anton Chekhov. He played a complex role in their lives. In the mid 1880s he brought the 20 year old Isaac Levitan to their salon. In spite of the age gap, a serious and long-term romance developed between the artist and Sofia Petrovna. She became his close friend, admirer and student. They met often, particularly after Levitan moved to No. 3 Bolshoi Tryokhsvyatitelsky Lane. They went out painting together, travelled on the Volga river. Many researchers consider this to be Levitan’s most productive period, inspired by his muse, Sofia Petrovna.
Not all the Kuvshinnikov’s friends responded to the situation positively. Chekhov was particularly critical. In his story The Grasshopper, published in 1892, the hero, Doctor Dymov is tormented by the attentions his frivolous wife pays to the young artist Ryabovsky. The story ends with the death of the doctor who catches a fatal disease from a child whose life he saves.
Even those who had never been to the Kuvshinnikovs easily recognised the prototypes for the story. Levitan and many of the Kuvshinnikov’s friends responded harshly. Relations with Chekhov were broken off, there was talk of a possible duel which, fortunately, came to nothing. But as the years went by the rift was smoothed over and eventually death put an end to all disputes. Doctor Kuvshinnikov died, so did Levitan and within four years, Chekhov himself was dead.
On September 3rd 1907 an announcement in the paper Moskovskiye vesti reported, “Yesterday the artist S. P. Kuvshinnikova was buried. She was a remarkably gifted person and for a long period in her life had a huge social circle. Among her friends and acquaintances were artists, performers, writers, singers - all kinds of creative people. The deceased was 50 years old. Her death came as a surprise to those close to her. She was staying with acquaintances at their estate on the Moscow-Kazan railway line. She fell ill there with dysentery which proved fatal. The funeral was held at the Skorbyshchensky monastery. The coffin was covered with wreaths”.
Sofia Petrovna caught the infection when she was nursing a lonely sick woman.
Kuibishev Academy of Military Engineering
By 1925 the Myasnitskaya police and fire stations ceased their work. Because it was no longer needed the wooden watchtower was dismantled.
In the 1930s the building housed the Kuibishev Academy of Military Engineering. The academy was founded in 1819 in St Petersburg as the main school of engineering. In 1923 it united with the Electro-technology and then the Artillery academy and moved to Moscow in 1932 and set up in the Durasov house on Pokrovsky Boulevard. The old police station was used as the material technical department. And this involved some major changes to the upper floors.
Visitors at Kuvshinnikov’s salon “under the watchtower” often noted the high ceilings in their apartment and the mezzanine. In old photographs we can see how the windows under the roof were small and low but on the lower floors they were very high. In the 1930s the mezzanine was converted into a proper storey by lowering the ceiling below. The windows on the facade were also made smaller. Traces of the old high ceilings are only visible now on the ground floor where the original design has not been changed. The staircase between the two upper floors has had to be replaced as well.
The Military Engineering academy built several houses on the territory to accommodate the staff and students who all needed somewhere to live. In 1953 on the red line of Khitrovsky Lane the academy build a large apartment building. A third of the building which had housed the Myasnitskaya police station was knocked down. Above the four windows on the ground floor you can still see the semicircular cornices which show where the central part of the building used to be. In 1956 a hostel was built for the Military Engineering academy, These days the building belongs to the HSE. It is corpus 5, 2/8 Khitrovsky Lane and it curves quaintly on the oblique angle because of the way the land lies.
The hostel and the former Myasnitskaya police station form an enclosed yard with a little two storey house in the middle which was built in 1940 and was a fuel depot with several cisterns dug into the ground and hatches on the surface. The unusual structure of the yard inspired some HSE students to rethink how to use the space creatively. They built the “MediaYard” which was part of the 5th Moscow biennale of contemporary art.
It is a light and airy space which was fitting for the old military medical centre as it is today as an educational premises at the HSE.
All the buildings of the Khitrovka complex have been run by HSE since 2005.
Author: Anastasia A. Solovyova
Art historian, historian of Moscow. Author of Litsa rossiiskoi istorii: kolleksia portretov (Faces of Russian History: A Collection of Portraits); director of a film-walk Ot Kremlya do Novodevichy (From the Kremlin to Novodevichy), 1997; Research editor on Lubiansky Triugolnik (Lubianka Triangle), by A.V. Kolosov. Anastasia Solovyova has studied and written about the bells of Moscow and is a tour guide for ‘Moscow that isn’t there’ and a contributing author to the website ‘Get to know Moscow’.