In the run-up to Power Plant Specialists’ Day: The history of the electrification of Moscow

In the run-up to Power Plant Specialists’ Day: The history of the electrification of Moscow
A control panel in the engine room of Thermal Power Station No. 16 Photo by V. Akhlomov, 1967Photo: The Main Archive Department of Moscow
Can you imagine a contemporary city without electricity? Electricity drives trolleybuses, trams and the metro, supplies power to plants and lights streets, offices and residential buildings. How did people get along without it? How did electricity become part of our life?

Urban lighting prior to the introduction of electricity

According to research by historian Pyotr Sytin, street lighting in Moscow was introduced by a Senate’s decree of 1730. Under the decree, poles with glass lamps had to be installed at a distance of 10 sazhens (about 25 metres) from one another. The lamps had hemp wicks treated with hempseed oil and it was the responsibility of homeowners to look after the lampposts in their area.

By the early 19th century, there were some 7,000 lampposts in the city. However, standards had been amended to increase the distance between lampposts to 100 metres in the major thoroughfares and to 50 metres in the lanes. Shortly after that, the design of lampposts was also changed: 5,000 lanterns were fixed on building walls while lampposts were only left in the areas without any buildings close by and were fixed not at the top of the poles but on long arms pointing up and down the streets. 

The majority of lampposts was destroyed in the Moscow fire during the 1812 Patriotic War but by 1825 the number of lampposts had even exceeded the prewar figure, reaching almost 7,600.

The mid-19th century saw plenty of experiments: in 1849, 100 lamps that used lampion oil instead of hempseed oil (and for that reason were commonly referred to as Warsaw lamps) were installed in Moscow. In 1852, about 130 lamps burning spirit and turpentine to illuminate the streets appeared in the city and proved so successful that in ten years, the number of these lamps had shot up to 2,300. However, before long, kerosene had emerged as the oil of choice for Moscow’s street lighting system: in 1865, 9,200 lampposts were burning kerosene.

At that time another convenient alternative to oil was found: in 1865–1867, a gas plant was built in Moscow and already a year later 3,100 gas-burning lampposts were installed in the streets called (each) Sadovaya. Over the next 20 years, the number of gas-burning lampposts nearly tripled.      

Electric lighting: Teething problems

In 1883, the first 32 electric lamps illuminated the Kremlin, the terrace outside the Christ the Saviour Cathedral and Bolshoi Kamenny Bridge. Electricity was supplied by a small power plant at the Wine and Salt Bonded Warehouse on the Bolotnaya Embankment. Its limited capacity proved to be a drag on the expansion of electric lighting in Moscow, so in 1891, there were only slightly more than 40 lampposts with electric arc lamps in the city.   

Moscow City Power Station No. 1 (MOGES-1, now the Smidovich Hydropower Plant No.1) was built  in 1896–1897 at 8 Raushskaya Embankment by Electric Lights–1886 Joint-Stock Company (established in St Petersburg at the initiative of the Siemens brothers). First, the plant provided electricity to Petrovka and Kuznetsky Most streets, as well as other central streets. For example, the three-kilometre section of Tverskaya Street between Iverskiye Vorota and Tverskaya Zastava featured about 100 lampposts. In the late 1900s, electric lighting ousted kerosene lights in the Presnya area, along the lanes of Zamoskvorechye and other districts of Moscow.

A panoramic view of the Bolotnaya Embankment site development. The Central Electric Power Plant. Photographer unknown. 1940–1950. Courtesy by the Moscow Main Archive Directorate

Hydropower Plant No.1 was fitted with cutting-edge equipment and could generate electricity to power 30,000 incandescent electric lamps, each equivalent to the brightness of 16 candles. By 1905, the gas plant completely fell under control of the city and for a long time the authorities dragged their feet over switching from gas to electricity, which they would have to buy to light the city’s streets. The dominance of gas lighting, in terms of the number of lampposts and their overall capacity, lasted until the late 1920s. The major part of the city centre within the Garden Ring had largely gas street lights.

From a revolution in lighting to a revolution with dimmed lights

In the 1910s electrification started to gradually gain momentum as new lights were installed in squares, boulevards, streets and lanes, as well as along tram tracks. By early 1913, 440 electric arc lamps and almost 1,300 electric incandescent lamps lit the city’s streets. For comparison: there were about 9,000 gas-burning lampposts with improved burners in the city while the outlying districts were lit with 11,000 kerosene lamps.

There is also another way of comparing the proportion of various sources of street lighting: the overall length of streets with electric lights was a mere 19 kilometres, while that of streets with kerosene lamps was about 340 kilometres. Small wonder that the city council reported that “the vast majority of streets and squares, as well as boulevards and public gardens had extremely poor lighting”.      

World War I, the 1917 Revolution and the ensuing Civil War only complicated things, as many lampposts were destroyed. According to official data, in 1924, there were about 5,000 gas and kerosene lamps across the city, while slightly over 100 electric arc lamps remained on main thoroughfares and about 3,200 electric incandescent lamps along the lanes of the Zamoskvorechye area and several other districts.   

A triumph of electricity

Fast-track industrialisation in the Soviet Union was beginning to bear fruit: in 1932, all gas lamps were replaced with electric ones, the number of which had increased to about 40,000 by the end of the 1930s.

During the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945), Moscow was plunged into darkness yet again.  Due to incessant bombing, the city had to be kept in constant black-out, causing long-lasting effects.  For instance, during almost ten years after the war ended, the Kremlin was the only architectural landmark that was lit at night. The installation devised to illuminate the Kremlin’s contours  and walls was made in 1947 for marking the 800th anniversary of the foundation of Moscow.      

Installing street lights in Ryazansky Prospekt. Photo by B. Yaroslavtsev. 1947. Courtesy by the Moscow Main Archive Directorate

In the second half of the 20th century, lighting along all major streets in the city was given a facelift. Tall decorative cast-iron masts topped with specular reflector lamps first appeared in the early 1950s. In 1955, work began on the installation of new design street lights that were made of glass and housed fluorescent (daylight) bulbs – Initially appearing on 1st Brestskaya Street,  by the end of the 1960s these lights had become a permanent fixture across the city.   

Fixing lamps on a lamppost outside the MGU building at Leninskiye Gory. Photo by Yu. Korolyov. August 1953. Courtesy by the Moscow Main Archive Directorate

In 1975, foreign-made overhanging lights with high-pressure sodium bulbs were installed on Karl Marx Prospekt (now Okhotny Ryad Street) and Dzerzhinskogo Square (now Lubyanskaya Square). Their unusual orange glow has since become Moscow’s visiting card. 

Outside the TsUM store in Petrovka Street at night. Photo by V. Sobolev. 1988. Courtesy by the Moscow Main Archive Directorate

Lighting systems enabled by LED (light-emitting diode) technology have been vigorously introduced since the early 21st century, mainly due to two factors: First, they are brighter and more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs, and this allows the city to cut budgetary expenditures; Second, LED lights can change colour, allowing city authorities to diversify the illumination of the city.  Today, Moscow city authorities illuminate all buildings along the city centre’s streets and all outbound motorways.   

The number of street lights in Moscow has dramatically increased over the last 50 years: in the late 1950s, there were over 75,000 lights, and  in 1985 the  number had exceeded 160,000.  By the end of 2015, Moscow had over 540,000 street lights, which are tasked with illuminating the city’s many roads, courtyards, architectural monuments and parks.

Electricity in homes and elsewhere

Electricity became part of Muscovites’ daily life in the early 20th century. It symbolised their remarkable future, a time when people would not have to do hard physical work thanks to this new type of energy. For instance, a public celebration at Manezh during the Easter holidays in 1901 was held under the slogan “The Kingdom of Flowers, Plants and Electricity”. For this reason, in addition to being ornately decorated, the Manezh interior was illuminated with electric light bulbs.   

In his memoirs, Moscow Governor Vladimir Dzhunkovsky describes how Moscow was illuminated for the celebration of the centenary of the 1812 war: “Very crowded streets were literally flooded with lights of various colours. Many buildings glittered with electric lights set along their architectural outlines. The tall building of the Rumyantsev Museum (now known as the Pashkov House – stood out, as did the spectacularly illuminated buildings along the Sofiyskaya Embankment.”  

The appearance of the first electric light bulbs in homes made quite a stir. People realised that a new era had been ushered in and the word “electricity” became the symbol of progress. City residents literally besieged the Moscow head police master asking him for authorisation to electrify their homes. Their applications contained detailed power supply specifications that even included wiring arrangements for rooms. In 1904, factory owner Nikolai Zimin installed electric light equipment in his home on Bolshaya Alekseyevskaya Street and at night it was illuminated with 73 electric light 3.5 watt bulbs.

Writer Yuri Olesha wrote: “Those were not the lamps we have now – lamps that immediately give off maximum light – rather, they gradually and slowly gained their expected light intensity… I remember crowds of people from other flats coming over to see their first glowing electric light bulb… Of course, that was the harsh glow of the bare light bulb – similar to the one we can see today in some entrance lodge. But this was new hitherto never-seen-before light! It was ordained “electricity” – a word at that time that was little known, fascinating and hardly comprehensible!”  

By 1913, electricity had become available to a number of municipal institutions, such as: the city bakery, which supplied hospitals with bread; cheap lodging houses on 2nd Meshchanskaya Street; the Butyrskaya outpatient clinic at the corner of Palikha and Tikhvinskaya streets; and, the five-story building of the Yermakov Dosshouse on 1st Dyakovsky Pereulok (next to Kalanchyovskaya Square).  

Electricity in wires makes travel faster

In the last quarter of the 19th century, horse-drawn trams were the most popular form of public transport in Moscow, carrying up to 25 million passengers a year in the mid-1890s. By the end of the century, horses began to be displaced by electricity. For example, in 1899, electrical wiring was installed on the Dolgorukovskaya Line horse-drawn tram route running from Strastnoi Square (now Pushkinskaya Square) to Petrovsky Park via Butyrskaya Zastava. This event  kick-started electric tram service in Moscow.

In 1902, the Moscow City Duma began contemplating the construction of a central city tram electric power plant. For this purpose, the city’s authorities allocated a section of the embankment of the Bersenevka area by Maly Kamenny Bridge (commonly referred to as the Second Wine and Salt Bonded Warehouse), which was city property. There were two reasons behind the choice of this land plot: first, water was required to power steam turbines and, second, the river was used to haul coal.  

In 1902, the City Duma set up an ad hoc commission in charge of electrifying railway lines with Vladimir Oldenborger, one of the most competent municipal engineers, at the helm. After considering a number of projects, the city approved a plan by architect Nikolai Bashkirov. The new electric power plant was built in two phases from 1904 to1908. It was located in an oblong building with four pipes at the corners and decorated in Russian style. This was how the city’s second electric power plant – GES-2 – appeared on the Bolotnaya Embankment. The facility supplied electricity to power electric trams and, for some time, it was even referred to as the Tram Electric Power Plant.

The 1917 guide-book, Sightseeing in Moscow, reads: “The city’s trams are powered by electricity, which is supplied by a specially-built electric power plant … The plant generates 6,600-volts of alternating current; underground cables then carry it to nine substations located in different parts of the city, where  high-voltage alternating current is transformed into 600-volt direct current; next, direct current is carried by underground cables from the substations to the wires; from there, it flows via the electric arc of the driving carriage to its engine and sets the carriage into motion; the spent electric charge flows back to the underground cables via the rails and is directed to the substations.”

In 2015, GES-2 was removed from service and a year later the Moscow Government took the decision to renovate the historical building, transforming it into a museum and educational complex, the Academy of Contemporary Art..

Not only trams, trolley buses and the metro are powered by electricity, but also commuter trains, which owe their name in Russian – elektrichki – to this type of propulsion. The project to electrify railway lines in Moscow got underway in 1929 and was only completed in the mid-1950s. Today, electric trains carry over 10 million passengers in the city every day.

In harmony with time… and water

There are many fields for application of electricity in the city’s economy. For example, the development of tram service required that synchronised electric clocks be installed in various districts to control service intervals. The book Moscow’s Contemporary Economy reads: “The clocks are set to work in sync with the central clock installed at the City Duma building in Voskresenskaya Square” (now Revolution Square –

In 1912, the Mytishchinskaya Water Pump Station, which supplied water to the city, started to use electricity. They installed generators to operate pumps, as well as electric lighting in all buildings located on the territory of the station, including the machinery hall, offices and residential buildings for workers. The only remaining gas lamps were used for outdoor lighting.

In 1902, the Vorobyovsky water basin was made part of a network of facilities operated by the first urban water supply station – Rublyovskaya – which was located 45 kilometres from the city up the Moskva River. This reservoir, with a capacity of 170,000 cubic metres, played a significant role in regulating water supply and it was outfitted with electric alarm devices to monitor water levels.

Development of the Moscow power grid

In 1917, the capacity of all electric power plants operating in Moscow and the Moscow Province (Gubernia) totalled 93 megawatts. In December 1920, the State Commission for the Electrification of Russia (GOELRO) approved a plan to increase the total capacity of the city’s electric power plants 3.5 times, up to 340 megawatts.  

Put into operation in 1922, the Kashirskaya State-Run Regional Electric Power Plant (GRES) started to supply Moscow’s power grid with electricity via power supply lines 120 kilometres long. Three years later, the Shaturskaya GRES was commissioned and another year later, a central dispatcher service was established to monitor the operation of the Moscow power grid.

In 1931, a Plenum of the Central Committee of the All-Russia Communist Party (of Bolsheviks) resolved to build large heating plants (TETs) in Moscow. In 1933, the first home-made cogeneration turbine of 12 megawatts was installed at GES-1, bringing the power plant’s overall output of electricity to 120 megawatts. In 1937, the Moscow power grid’s capacity reached its all-time high of 1 gigawatt. 

A peak water heater of the heating-water converter plant at Heating Plant No. 12. Photo by E. Yevzerikhin. 1 February 1957. Courtesy by the Moscow Main Archive Directorate

By 1940, the Uglichskaya and Rybinskaya hydroelectric power plants were up and running. Both plants played a great role in supplying power to Moscow, particularly during the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945).

By the late 1960s, the total capacity of all electric power plants integrated into the Moscow power grid had reached six gigawatts.  At the end of the 1970s, the city received energy from 20 electric power plants, including the Konakovskaya and Volzhskaya facilities, in addition to the various substations that distributed electricity to districts in the city.

A new electricity supply line, LEP-220 at Mosenergo Heating Plant No. 26. Photo by A. Bezrodnov. 23 December 1984. Courtesy by the Moscow Main Archive Directorate

Some people’s profession is to light their country

The electric power grid is a complicated engineering complex that requires skilled specialists to maintain and manage it. In Moscow, specialists in this area were already being trained in the early 20th century, for example, at the electrical engineering department at the Soldatyonkov Industrial School on Donskaya Street, which opened in 1909, training technicians for industrial enterprises and municipal services that used electricity. In 1911, students of the industrial school at the Bakhrushin City Orphanage were the first to qualify as electric power shop foremen. 

Best workers operating the new generating unit at Heating Plant No. 26: B. Tarakatkov and V. Kucherov at work. Photo by A. Bezrodnov. 23 December 1984. Courtesy by the Moscow Main Archive Directorate

In 1921, the Moscow Corporation of State-Run Electric Power Plants (Mosenergo) was established. Today, it is Russia’s major territorial generating facility and one of the world’s leading heat-generating companies. It incorporates 15 electric power plants of a total capacity of 13 gigawatts and 17 district heating electric power plants. Mosenergo supplies electricity and heat to over 17 million people living in the city and its immediate suburbs. The company’s plants supply over 60 percent of the electricity and over 80 percent of the heat energy consumed by the capital and its environs.

For more details about the history of the company, visit its website run by the Mosenergo museum. But, first of all, we want to congratulate the Mosenergo staff with their professional holiday – Power Plant Specialists’ Day, which is marked on 22 December.  

Background material courtesy by the Central State Archive of Moscow