The Boulevard Ring: a green belt instead of a white wall

The Boulevard Ring: a green belt instead of a white wall
It’s a ring which isn’t one – a broken line of boulevards and squares, the ideal place for gatherings and photo exhibitions, leisurely strolls and protest meetings, a green zone that was once part of the city’s fortifications and defences. The Boulevard Ring is all of this and more.

Strictly speaking, the ring of boulevards encircling central Moscow is not a ring at all but rather a horseshoe following the Moskva River’s bend. More important than this broken ring’s shape though is its location. From ancient times, this was where the city raised its protecting fortifications, ramparts of packed earth at first, and then wooden walls, which by the late 16th  century were replaced with new defensive walls of stone.  

These fortifications became the third line of defence after the Kremlin walls and the walls of Kitai-gorod. One version has it that the area was named the “White City” after the white stone or lime used to cover the walls’ bricks. Another version says that the area got its name because its residents, nobles and aristocrats were not taxed, unlike the merchants and artisans living in the “black” city beyond. Another name for the area, Tsar grad or Tsaryov grad (Tsar’s City), seems to lend credence to the second version.

By the 18th century, Moscow had expanded considerably and the old defensive walls lost their original significance. In 1774, Catherine the Great, who paid much attention to urban planning, established the Masonry Office to oversee the demolition of the old walls and towers. The construction materials thus obtained were used to build public edifices, for example the Foundling House on Moskvoretskaya Embankment (today it houses the Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces Academy).

Where the old fortification walls once stood, Catherine the Great ordered trees planted and avenues laid out, and where towers used to rise, she had squares put in. It was one thing to give the order however, and quite another to get it to completion. The first boulevard, Tverskoi Boulevard, appeared only after her death, in 1796, during the reign of Pavel I. The most recent part of the ring, Pokrovsky Boulevard, was completed only in 1954, after the demolition of the Pokrovsky garrison’s spacious parade ground that once occupied the area. Catherine the Great certainly looked far into the future.  

The main work on the boulevards took around 50 years. In 1845, the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky wrote that Moscow’s boulevards are the finest urban adornment, and St Petersburg “has full right to envy them”. This “right” became enshrined in law in 1978, when the Boulevard Ring was declared a monument of landscape and park art.

The A Ring

This green belt was without public transport for many years. Horse-drawn cabs were enough to get people around. In 1887 however, horse-drawn trams began travelling the boulevards’ length, and a quarter of a century later, in 1911, the first tram on wheels started running on the route. The A route, which the locals affectionately dubbed “Annushka”, really did form a ring, for the tram rails were laid along the Moskva River embankments as well. This was how the Boulevard Ring got its second name – the A Ring.

Over the last 100 years, Annushka’s route has changed repeatedly for various reasons. Today it runs from Kaluzhskaya Square (metro Oktyabrskaya) to Turgenevskaya Square (metro Chistiye Prudy). It now runs along only three of the boulevards: Yauzsky, Pokrovsky, and Chistoprudny. There is no guaranteeing that the tram’s route might not change again one day.

What’s interesting is that the current A route follows the only tram line still in operation within the Garden Ring (trams No. 3 and No. 39 also follow this line). What’s more, Annushka takes a break on weekends – the route’s venerable age takes its toll, no doubt. On workdays though, among the usual trams running the route, you can also find the Annushka tram-café. Its interior takes you back 150 years, and the names of the dishes on the menu come from the pages of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita.

Bulat Okudzhava wrote about the A tram, and so did Konstantin Paustovsky, who worked as a conductor at one time. The poet Sergei Ostrovoi even wrote a song for Annushka, though few probably remember it now. This famous boulevard tram route, once called the “theatre route”, as it passed many of Moscow’s theatres and cinemas, could also deservedly be called the “literary route”.

The rough and tumble of everyday life

The Boulevard Ring has seen a lot in its time, and it has not always been an easy lot. Inconsiderate Muscovites have trampled the lawns, broken the railings, and chopped down the trees for wood. In the mid-19th century, the Governor General of Moscow took strict measures and banned people from walking dogs on the boulevards, riding bicycles, pulling carts, and even walking with suitcases. Special inspectors made sure that everyone followed the rules.

During the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War, the boulevards regained something of their original historical purpose. In 1941, they were the site of military training exercises for militia soldiers, of air defence installations, and even of aerostats for blocking the city’s airspace.

Work began on fixing damage from bombing and the defence efforts immediately after the war ended, and a big urban redevelopment plan transformed Moscow substantially for the 800th anniversary of its founding. Many trees and bushes were planted along the boulevards, new benches were installed, the old lattice fences were replaced by iron railings (with each boulevard getting its own individual decoration), and elegant decorative planters and new street lights were added. Vitaly Dolganov was this renovation project’s author and director. 

The green belt continues to improve today. In 2015, the Strelka Design Bureau drafted a major new reconstruction plan for the Boulevard Ring. As part of the My Street project, the proposal is to limit traffic on the boulevards by redirecting it to the Garden Ring and Third Ring Road. Priority will go to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. This plan will require the construction of new lanes and traffic islands at the crossings.

The Boulevard Ring’s toponymy

The names of the Boulevard Ring’s squares recall the fortification past and hark back to gates in the defensive walls: Arbatskiye Vorota, Nikitskiye Vorota, Myasnitskiye Vorota. The square we know today as Pushkinskaya used to be called Tverskiye Vorota and then Strastnaya (after the nearby monastery), and it was even called December Revolution Square. It only got its current name, in honour of the great poet, in 1931.

Trubnaya Square recalls the “truba” (the Russian for pipe) – the name people gave the drainage canal dug into the old wall for the Neglinnaya River’s flow. Khokhlovskaya Square and the nearby Khokhlovsky side street got their names from the surrounding Khokhly district, settled primarily by Ukrainians. Not far away, on Maroseyka, was the Malorossiskoye, or Ukrainian, travellers’ house.

As for the word “boulevard”, like the idea of putting greenery into the city, it came from Europe. The French “boulevard” comes from the Dutch “bolwerk”, that is to say, “fortification”. Thus the Boulevard Ring inherited not just the old fortifications’ geography but also the defensive reference in its name. The uneducated Russian people soon changed the odd-sounding foreign word though, replacing it with “gulvar”, from the Russian gulyat, walk at leisure – a word that suggests the new wide streets’ main purpose – a place for promenading.

Most of the names of the boulevards themselves – Nikitsky, Petrovsky, Pokrovsky, Rozhdestvensky, Strastnoi and Sretensky, come from the nearby monasteries or churches. Gogolevsky Boulevard got its name in 1924, during the 115th birthday of Nikolai Gogol. Previously, it was called Prechistensky, named after the church of the Most Holy Mother of God at Novodevichy Monastery.

Tverskoi Boulevard got its name from its neighbourhood with Tverskaya Street, and Yauzky Boulevard and Yauzskiye Vorota Square got their name from the White City tower. Chistoprudny Boulevard is one of the Boulevard Ring’s particular amusing curiosities and deserves a mention of its own.

The Boulevard Ring’s curiosities

The pond that gave its name to Chistoprudny (clean pond) Boulevard got this pleasant name only in 1703, thanks to the efforts of Prince Alexander Menshikov, who bought up land in Myasnitskaya Street. The prince, acting as a conscientious owner, ordered the pond cleansed of all the leftovers and remains tossed in from the nearby meat market. Once you know this little detail, it comes as no surprise that the pond was previously known as the “foul pond”.

Not far away is another of the Boulevard Ring’s curious anecdotes. Not only visitors but also many Muscovites express surprise at the fact that there is a Turgenev Library in Turgenev Square but no monument to Turgenev himself. Around the edges of the square you find monuments to others, however: the monument to Alexander Griboyedov at the start of Chistoprudny Boulevard, and the monument to Vladimir Shukhov, who built the famous Shukhov Tower, at the end of Sretensky Boulevard. The urban planners justify this situation by saying that Griboyedov and Shukhov both lived for a long time in Myasnitskaya, whereas Turgenev moved often, and this makes it difficult to choose a suitable spot for a monument to him.

At the other extreme, there is the monument to Vladimir Vysotsky at the end of Sretensky Boulevard, despite the words from his song “I Had 40 Names”:

They won’t raise a statue to me in the square

Somewhere near Petrovskiye Vorota…

Not only do monuments get built in unexpected places but they even get up and move. Not everyone knows that the monument to Pushkin has stood in its familiar spot in the square of the same name only since 1948. It got moved there at Stalin’s personal behest. Back in 1880, when it was raised, it stood at the other end of Tverskoi Boulevard. The author of The Bronze Horseman would probably have appreciated this idea of a statue leaving its pedestal and moving. 

Another moving monument was that of Gogol. The first monument to Gogol was raised in 1909, to celebrate 100 years since the writer’s birth. It stood on what was then called Prechistensky Boulevard and stirred mixed reactions. Many thought the bent figure, weighed down it seemed by bitter reflections and moral woes, overly gloomy. A competition for a new statue was announced in the late 1940s, and in 1952, to commemorate 100 years since Gogol’s death, a new monument, much prouder and grander this time, was erected in the street we now call Gogolevsky Boulevard. 

The “gloomy” Gogol was sent into exile in the Architecture Museum on the site of the Donskoi Monastery, and in 1959, it was moved to the courtyard of Count Alexander Tolstoy’s estate at the start of Nikitsky Boulevard, where the writer spent his final years (the Gogol House-Museum was later organised in this building). This created the unique case of two monuments to one and the same person situated in close proximity – there is less than 400 metres between them. There were later repeated proposals to swap the two again, but nothing ever came of it. 

These and other interesting and amusing facts make you suspect at times that the Boulevard Ring’s form is not only rather like a horseshoe, but also like the Cheshire Cat’s cunning smile. You will smile too, strolling the boulevards. Theoretically, you can complete the circuit in a couple of hours at a brisk pace, but it’s unlikely that anyone would manage such a feat: there’s too much temptation to sit for a moment on a bench, peruse an open air photo exhibition, snap a few selfies in front of various monuments, admire the fine old buildings, and sip a coffee in a nearby café. Enjoy your walks!

The Boulevard Ring in figures

— The Boulevard Ring encompasses 10 boulevards and 13 squares.

— The Boulevard Ring’s total length is slightly more than 9 kilometres.

— The longest boulevard is Tverskoi Boulevard at 857 metres.

— The shortest boulevard is Sretensky Boulevard at just 214 metres.

— The widest boulevard is Strastnoi Boulevard with a width of 123 metres.

— Between 1945 and 1947, more than 4,000 trees and more than 13,000 shrubs were planted along the Boulevard Ring.  

Nine metro stations are located along the Boulevard Ring: Kropotkinskaya, Arbatskaya, Pushkinskaya, Tverskaya, Chekhovskaya, Trubnaya, Turgenevskaya, Sretensky Bulvar, and Chistiye Prudy.