The Garden Ring: History, aesthetics and mystery

The Garden Ring: History, aesthetics and mystery
In 2016, the Garden Ring celebrates 200 years since the project to create it was approved. Since then, it has undergone a number of transformations, and the gardens which its name celebrates are long gone. But the city is now planning to replant trees as a present for the Garden Ring’s anniversary. Not only will it make the street more attractive, but also cleaner. Happy anniversary, Garden Ring!

History written by fire and sword

The history of the Garden Ring is in many ways reminiscent of that of the Boulevard Ring, since it served as a fourth circular rampart protecting the Kremlin. It was at the end of the 16th century that Boris Godunov ordered an earth rampart on what were then Moscow’s outer limits. On top of the rampart a wall made of oak was to be built with towers, some of them with gates, and a moat filled with water was to be dug out around it. This was Moscow’s response to the frequent invasions by Crimean Tatars.

It didn’t take long by the standards of the time to build the rampart. The whole project took just one year, from 1591 to 1592, and was thus called Skorodom, which literally means “quick building.” It was officially called the Wooden (Derevyanniy Val) or the Earth (Zemlyanoy Val) city. The same name went to a Moscow district located between the Belgorod Wall and the meander of the Moskva River, mostly inhabited by craftsmen, merchants and peasants. Soldiers known as Streltsy settled in Zamoskvorechye, giving it the name Streletskaya Sloboda (quarters).

A century passed, and the defence line evolved into a customs border. In some places the earth rampart fell apart by itself, in others it was levelled to the ground, giving way to wide streets and big squares. Many of them became vibrant marketplaces, such as the Smolensky and Sukharevsky markets. Buildings along what was called the Earth (Zemlyanoy) city were mostly made of wood, and almost all of them perished in the destructive fires of 1812 when Napoleon’s troops marched into Moscow.

Let there be a garden where a city once stood

After the War of 1812, known in Russia as the Patriotic War of 1812, a Construction Commission was created in Moscow to assist people who had lost their homes in the fire. It became a successor to the famous Stoneworks Prikaz, which supervised the implementation of the new Moscow general plan under Empress Catherine the Great. The commission was quite efficient: most of the destroyed buildings were restored within the next five years.

One of the projects supervised by this commission was approved in 1816 and dealt with the Zemlyanoy City. The remaining parts of the earth rampart were removed, the moat filled, and a new road was paved with cobblestone, forming a wide street. Buildings on opposite sides of this new avenue were on average 60 metres apart. Almost half of this space went to the roadway and sidewalks, while owners of adjacent buildings were charged with planting greenery in the remaining area. Although under an obligation to do so, local landlords could choose plants and trees at their discretion.

It was in the next 15 years that this circular street earned its name. Only its squares and some streets in the Zamoskvorechye area did not have any trees (is it that the military living there refused to plant trees or were too poor to do so?). In some sections, for example on Smolensky Val and Zubovsky Val, the street evolved into a boulevard, and public festivities were held on Novinsky Val Square until the end of the 19th century.

1.	Sadovaya-Karetnaya Street, 1930s. The Moscow Archive Fund. Photographer unknown.

The B Ring, without gardens

Unfortunately, these gardens ceased to exist a century later, being sacrificed to ever increasing road traffic. Like the Boulevard Ring, by the end of the 19th century horse tram rails appeared on the Garden Ring, followed by electric street cars in 1912. Later this route was named with the letter B (which led to a popular designation as a “bug”). A quarter century later the street car was replaced by electric busses.

In the 1930s, the Garden Ring went through a period of repression, like the country in general. It started with the laying of asphalt, after which, the trees and plants were removed in order to widen the road. However, traffic volume kept increasing, suggesting the need to create multi-level interchanges, underpasses and pedestrian crossings, bridges and overpasses. Efforts to build new intersections peaked in the 1950s-1960s when Moscow was eager to make up for the time lost during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945.

As an aside, the Moscow Metro’s Circle Line opened between 1950 and 1954, even though construction begun during the war. The initial plan was to have the entire Circle Line built under the Garden Ring, but it was later decided to connect it to railway stations, where passenger traffic were much higher. Consequently, only the southern part of the Circle Line, from Park Kultury to Kurskaya metro stations, is actually under the Garden Ring.

The Garden Ring is one of the most heavily used and therefore congested city thoroughfares. It offers a convenient way to move across Moscow. Proposals to improve the Garden Ring surface every now and then, some of them quite radical. For example, in the early 2000s there was a project to make the Garden Ring a one-way street, so traffic would circulate counter clockwise. But this plan never materialised, with experts arguing that a roadway with over six lanes would not be an efficient solution. The Garden Ring remains a two-way avenue.

2.	Mayakovskogo Square from Bolshaya Sadovaya Street, 1977. Photo by A. Zhilyakov. The Moscow Archive Fund.

Military past, peaceful present, green future

The Garden Ring has witnessed many turning and tragic events throughout Russian history. During the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, barricades rose on Garden Ring and its squares, and it witnessed intense skirmishes. In November 1917, representatives of the Public Safety Committee surrendered the city to the Bolsheviks at 10 Sadovaya-Triumphalnaya Street, formerly used by the Governorate Council.

In the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, the B Ring and the Boulevard Ring regained their defence functions. In July 1944, after Nazi troops were defeated in Belarus, a column of German prisoners marched along the Garden Ring.

3.	Bolshaya Sadovaya Street, August 6, 1951. Photo by Naum Granovsky. The Moscow Archive Fund

Today, it is not uncommon for the Garden Ring to serve as a venue for various marches, all of them peaceful. Several times in a year it is closed to traffic for marathons, cycling parades or motor rallies.

The Garden Ring is among the top priorities of the My Street city renovation programme. Its first stage is already underway with utility lines undergoing renovation or relocated underground, including power cables, heat distribution systems, gas and water lines. The programme will move into its second stage in the near future: the Garden Ring will have the same width throughout, additional parking will be created, the sidewalks will be improved, and energy-saving lights installed, along with new benches and bus stops. Most importantly, gardens will make a return with the planting of 1,500 trees. The project is expected to take three years.

The mysterious Sukharevskaya Tower

The Garden Ring has many interesting and remarkable buildings. It is also important not to forget buildings that no longer exist, but should have been preserved. The most famous is perhaps the Sukharevskaya Tower. Built in 17th century, it served as a main landmark of Moscow for almost 250 years. It is mentioned by poet Mikhail Lermontov in his essay A Panorama of Moscow, and writer Vladimir Gilyarovsky in his book, Moscow and Muscovites, which describes life in pre-Revolutionary Moscow.

It was quite tall for the time (60 metres) and had a very elaborate and flamboyant design, which earned it a nickname Ivan the Great’s bride, a reference to Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Moscow Kremlin, which was the city’s tallest building for a long time. Since the Sukharevskaya Tower’s gothic form was reminiscent of a ship, there was a popular belief that it was Peter the Great, the founder of the Russian fleet, that was behind the architecture. While Peter the Great’s involvement in the design is questionable, the ship-like building did host a Navigation School in early 18th century, whose graduates served as prototypes for popular Soviet-era film Vivat, Gardes-Marines!

The very name of the tower is also a mystery. This stone building should have inherited the name of the structure it replaced, the Sretenskiye Gates on the Earth Ramparts. There is a commonly accepted theory that the tower was named after Lavrenty Sukharev, whose regiment remained on the side of future Emperor Peter in his struggle for the throne with his older sister Sophia. It was this regiment that protected the gates and later the tower.

This is only one of the legends related to this splendid stone structure. There is another. It has to do with a close companion of Peter the Great, head of the Navigation School Count Yakov Bryus, a prominent military leader and academic. He was regarded as a sorcerer for his extensive knowledge and reclusive lifestyle. The legend is that Bryus hid in one of the walls of the tower a black book, describing various secrets of witchcraft.

Sukharevskaya Tower served many purposes. It was used as a warehouse by the Admiralty. In the 19th century, it was transformed into a water tower, and hosted the Moscow Community Museum in the 20th century. However, nothing could save the tower, neither the fact that it dated back to early 18th century nor its multiple functions, when it was decided to demolish the building. Under the Moscow General Plan that was drafted in 1931, it was considered an impediment to road traffic.

Prominent figures in art tried to save the Sukharevskaya Tower, including Alexei Shchusev, Igor Grabar, Anatoly Efros, and many others. However, just as in the case of monuments to Pushkin and Gogol on the Boulevard Ring, it was Stalin who had the last word. The tower was destroyed in 1934. It took almost two months to break down this solid structure that was supposed to stand for centuries. The demolition was also surrounded by legends. Rumour had it that the Soviet leader was after the black book of the famous sorcerer.

Kolkhoznaya Square after the demolition of Sukharevskaya Tower, 1930s. Photographer unknown. The Moscow Archive Fund.

However, they didn’t manage to demolish the tower completely. Its foundation is still under the Garden Ring, and a memorial sign was placed on Bolshaya Sukharevskaya Square in 2006 as a reminder. The tower clock is now on the front gate of the Royal Estate at the Kolomenskoye Museum Reserve. One of the window casing mouldings was also preserved and was inserted in a Donskoy Monastery wall. The Gogol monument was also kept in the Donskoy Monastery until it was returned to the Boulevard Ring.

In the early 1980s, the Moscow Executive Council announced a tender for restoring the Sukharevskaya Tower, but the project never got off the ground. However, fantasy writer Kyr Bulychev in one of his books predicted that the tower will be restored by the end of the 21st century. Time will tell.

Many marvellous and incredible stories surround the Garden Ring. Want to learn them? Just hop on the B trolleybus that still circles the Garden Ring. Look around and listen – sometimes the stones speak for themselves…