One snowy winter’s morning early in 2006, my wife and I packed our possessions into an old, beat-up van and drove from the outskirts of Moscow to our new home in the historical centre of the Russian capital. Eight years, a child, and two books on, we’re still here. Indeed, I have now lived longer in this one-and-a-half room apartment with an out-of-tune grand piano and a view of the imposing towers and turrets of the Stalin-era Foreign Ministry than anywhere else in my adult life.
I’d been in Moscow for close to a decade before our move here, drawn to Russia by the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the country’s tumultuous history. But my accommodation throughout the tail end of the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s had consisted of a series of nondescript Soviet-era apartments, far from the bustle of central Moscow.
So I didn’t think twice when the opportunity arose to relocate to a flat just off the Old Arbat, a pedestrianised street famous throughout Russia for its theatres and distinctive 19th-century architecture. “If the Kremlin is Moscow’s heart, then the Arbat is its soul,” goes the saying. My wife, a Russian national who grew up in east Siberia, needed little persuading, either.
Of course, my finances didn’t stretch to purchasing such a prime piece of Moscow real estate. We ‘inherited’ the apartment from a friend and fellow writer who had decided to leave Russia for good. The landlord, a 70-something professor of astrophysics, has been renting the apartment out to foreigners since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I can trace the line of previous occupants back to the early years of President Boris Yeltsin’s catastrophic rule. The good professor’s interest in the heavens means he is decidedly unconcerned with most worldly matters — our rent has barely increased since we moved in.
Constructed in the years just before the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, the apartment building’s ornate and most un-Soviet facade is decorated with twin Atlas figures that appear to be propping up the six-storey edifice. There is, of course, like most things in Russia, a dark side to the building. The NKVD, the forerunner to the KGB, took three people from their homes here during 1937, the height of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s purges. All three were later shot. Another building on our street saw even greater losses: 18 of its residents were executed in the same bloody period. In a telling sign of the attitude of the Kremlin — and indeed many ordinary Russians — to Stalin’s crimes, no plaque commemorates the memory of these victims of state terror.
The traditional haunt, down the years, of writers and other members of the intelligentsia, both Alexander Pushkin — Russia’s much-loved national poet — and Nikolai Gogol lived in the Old Arbat area during the tsarist period. Indeed, Gogol, the crazed author of the classic novel Dead Souls, spent his final tortured months in an apartment just up the road from our home, refusing all nourishment apart from water and black bread. The area was also the setting for the bestselling novel Children of the Arbat, by Anatoly Rybakov, whose criticism of the Soviet system meant it could only be published once perestroika rolled around. I do not lack for literary inspiration as I wander the atmospheric streets of my neighbourhood.
The area was immortalised in a song in the 1960s by Bulat Okudzhava, the Soviet-era singer-songwriter whose Oh Arbat, My Arbat (‘You are my destiny, you are my happiness and my sorrow’) is mauled every day by at least three-dozen buskers. Towards the end of the 1980s, wannabe hippies and punks flooded the area, transforming the kilometre-long street into the spiritual home of the Soviet Union’s unlikely counterculture.
The Old Arbat was also caught up in the more recent quest for political change, when opponents of Vladimir Putin’s rule gathered here as part of a series of Occupy-type camps across Moscow in the spring of 2012. I was researching a book on the anti-Putin protests at the time, so it was extremely convenient to be able to wander up to the camp whenever the mood took me. Riot police showed less enthusiasm, however, and moved in to disperse protesters after a couple of days.
The cheap cafes and tacky souvenir shops filling much of the Old Arbat these days may have done much to dirty this illustrious area’s famous ‘soul’. But the picturesque back streets just off the main tourist drag retain a centuries-old calm that lends itself to long, meandering walks in snow or sunshine.
Despite the low rent and prime location, we will eventually have to pack our bags and move. It will be a sad day. Still, at least we will have the satisfaction of knowing our daughter, Masha, got to enjoy the rare distinction of being a genuine ‘child of the Arbat’.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist/writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian and The Times, among other publications. He is the author of Kicking the Kremlin (Oneworld, 2014), about Russia’s anti-Putin protest movement.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)