When I teach art history, the top Russian artists in my syllabus are Ilya Repin and Isaac Levitan, whose countryside landscapes underscore the vastness of the world’s largest country. It’s a shame that I haven’t visited it since age seven and a return is long overdue. The last place where my family visited in Russia was its capital Moscow, city of more than 12 million residents.
Once a tiny village, the city began to develop in 1156, when Yury Vladimirovich Dolgorukiy built a fortress (Kremlin) on the Moscow River and has since expanded in concentric circles to nearly a thousand square miles. Within the city’s borders are numerous hidden streams such as the polluted Yauza and the underground Neglinka.
In total, the number of hidden waterways within the city exceeds a hundred. For now, here’s the story of Chistye Prudy (Чистые пруды) or Clean Ponds, a park in the city’s center, a mile to the northeast of the Kremlin.
In the first photo above, boaters are admiring the Soviet-design apartments lining the pond, showcases of an idealized Soviet city, a park whose beauty conceals its past as a wetland, when it had the very unattractive name Поганые болота (Filthy Swamp).
The pond is located in the middle of Chistoprudny Boulevard, its setting evoking the canals of Paris and Amsterdam that occupy the medians of their respective boulevards. As a result, Chistye Prudy have always attracted the creative types to its shore, artists, filmmakers, poets, singers, and political activists. In films, the pond was a setting for romantic dates, where couples skated on its icy surface.
Below is a sampling of romantic comedies that were filmed at Chistye Prudy in the 1960s:
Peeling back through historical maps, we see that in 1650, the pond carried its previous unattractive name, shadowed by the White Wall dividing the White City section from the Earthen City. The innermost triangle is the Kremlin, seat of the government. Commissioned in 1585 by Tsar Feodor I, it was razed two centuries later. Its route survives today as the Boulevard Ring.
Going further back to 1389, we have a map below designed by I. A. Golubtsov in 1952 showing the development of the city with centuries of archaeological sites documented. A stream flowed out of the pond, the Rachka, which drained into the Moscow River just a few feet short of the Yauza River. According to the map, the eastern outskirts of medieval Moscow were dotted with monasteries. At the time, Russia was already asserting itself as a spiritual and political successor to Byzantium, an empire in decline which would be overrun by the Turks in 1453.
Around 1707, Tsar Peter the Great bestowed property along the swampy pond to Russian nobleman Prince Alexander Danilovich Menshikov who ordered it cleaned. It was then reborn as Clean Ponds. Menshikov took more than he can chew, bestowing upon himself numerous titles of leadership, building palaces for himself near Saint Petersburg, and involving himself in the succession struggles of the ruling dynasty. In 1727, descendants of the medieval nobles, such as the Dolgorukiy family, deposed him and he died poor in a Siberian village. A lasting remnant of this almost-tsar is the Menshikov Tower, located a couple of blocks from the pond on Archangelsk Place. The tower was built as a Russian Orthodox Church in the Italian Renaissance style.
While the Russian Orthodox Church dominates the cultural scene, a small pair of sculptures in the park echoes to the idol-worship of Russian paganism. The two “dwarves” stand near a 2006 monument honoring Kazakh writer Abai Kunabayev (also spelled Абай Құнанбаев Құнанбайұлы).. As the second largest in landmass among the former Soviet republics and site of the Russian Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan is a close ally of Russia. Kunabayev’s presence in the park highlights Moscow as a cosmopolitan city. In his homeland, he appears on postage stamps, a town name, and currency.
Kunabayev’s statue was introduced in a ceremony celebrating the friendship of the two countries.
In the center of the pond on its western side, a historical-theme restaurant, Shatyor (The Tent) serves up traditional cuisine along with the popular Napoleon cake.
The classicist structure to its north is the Wellness Club, which opened in 2006. Another nearby classical revival on the pond’s eastern side is the Sovremmenik (Contemporary) Theater, built in 1914 as the Coliseum Cinema.
The park is ringed by a streetcar line and is also accessed by the city’s legendary subway system, which has the Chistye Prudy station. Completed in 1935, it initially carried the name Kirovskaya, after a popular communist figure who was likely killed in a political assassination that was used as a pretext for political purges thereafter. Kirov nearly eclipsed Stalin in popularity within the party, and so in the leader’s view, he had to go.
Following the collapse of communist rule in 1991, the station was renamed after the picturesque pond. Nevertheless, Sergey Kirov’s name still appears on two smaller cities in Russia, and numerous schools, parks, and streets throughout the country.
The above map of Moscow’s waterways shows the city’s namesake river meandering across, fed by numerous tributaries. Those no longer extant are in red, while new bodies of water created over the centuries are in orange. For reference, the Kremlin is marked by a red star.
Moscow is legendary for its traffic congestion, high cost of living, and hectic pace of life that rivals New York. Like any city where one does not have a moment to rest, Chistye Prudy is as vital to the quality of life of Muscovites as Central Park is to New York.