The house that was built for Catherine the Great or the past and the future of Moskvoretskaya Embankment buildings

The house that was built for Catherine the Great or the past and the future of Moskvoretskaya Embankment buildings
The city is looking for an investor to upgrade a large development on Moskvoretskaya Embankment in central Moscow. This story discusses the area’s long history and proposed modernisation concepts.

Over a period of  the past 250 years, this sprawling complex of buildings on Moskvoretskaya Embankment has accommodated an orphanage for homeless  children, the Nikolayevsky Institute for Orphaned Children of Officers, the Palace of Labour and the Strategic Missile Forces Academy. Today, it consists of 33 buildings, including nine cultural landmarks and five important cityscape things. This 11-hectare development is located in central Moscow and borders on the Moskva River, Solyanka Street, Kitaigorodsky Proyezd, Bolshoi Ustyinsky Bridge and Ustyinsky Proyezd.

Civilians were not allowed to enter this area for 80 years, and the buildings were only vacated completely several years ago. The entire development is to be auctioned off shortly. The city has even drafted a territorial development concept. The future owner will have to upgrade local landmarks and adapt them for modern use. Therefore central Moscow would receive a large development featuring a hotel, luxurious residential buildings, entertainment facilities and retail outlets. Most importantly, the entire territory will be improved and opened up to the public. All bids should be submitted by 23 October, and the winner will be selected on 27 October.

The Empress’ project

Empress Catherine the Great approved the Imperial Vospitatelny Dom (Orphanage) project on 1 September 1763 or just over 12 months after ascending the throne. This ambitious charitable project can be perceived as a populist gesture on her part.

“Russian society was muttering with discontent after this German princess deposed her husband and became Empress. Catherine had to convince the society that she was concerned about its well-being, and that she comprehended the population’s worries and concerns,” Filipp Smirnov, Editor in Chief of the Moskovskoye naslediye (Moscow Heritage) Magazine, noted.

Her Secretary Ivan Betskoi suggested establishing the above-mentioned Vospitatelny Dom (Orphanage), a place for orphans and homeless children. He also found the charitable project’s sources of funding. Of course, private donations helped finance most project expenses, but they were not the only source of funding.

For example, the Board of Trustees of the Vospitatelny Dom (Orphanage) managed the loans bank, the widows’ bank and saving bank for keeping deposits. These organisations loaned money at preset interest rates, accepted deposits and helped travellers as well. This arrangement was rather convenient because people always feared being robbed during their trips.

The Board of Trustees offered insurance policies to those travelling from Moscow to StPetersburg or vice-versa. Travellers visited the Board of Trustees building on Solyanka Street, deposited ten roubles each, plus four percent extra. After arriving in St Petersburg, each traveller exchanged his or her promissory note and got those ten roubles back. And the surplus four percent was transferred to the Vospitatelny Dom (Orphanage) account.

Moscow which was swarming with orphans and homeless children needed this orphanage badly. People already brought 19 infants to the future charitable orphanage on the day its cornerstone was laid. A shortage of wet nurses for newborns forced the administration to accommodate children with foster families for a while.

Since its inception, the Orphanage’s management focused on its medical aspects. The Orphanage had its own doctors, paramedics plus midwives.

The plague’s unexpected consequences

Boys studied literacy, mathematics, history and foreign languages, as well as shoe-making, dyeing, glove-making and the textile business. Girls studied housekeeping, needlework, embroidery, sewing and lace-making. Boys and girls remained free and no one had the right to make them serfs.

The Vospitatelny Dom (Orphanage) changed gradually over the years. The dreadful Moscow plague of 1771 became a major life-changing factor. Naturally, local parents tried hard to save their children and sent them away from the city whenever possible. But adults were not always able to leave the city; therefore many children, including those from wealthy families, lost their parents after the epidemic. Many trustees brought children to the Vospitatelny Dom (Orphanage), but it was necessary to pay for such children. Therefore the Orphanage accommodated many children from the privileged class several years after its inception, and financing volumes also increased.

Another Empress

Empress Maria Fyodorovna, the wife of Emperor Paul I, started implementing ambitious charitable projects and also spurred the orphanage’s development. She ordered the creation of artisan workshops with bedrooms and canteens outside the orphanage, and some children were transferred there.

She also increased the number of girls studying at French-language classes and established two other faculties. The first faculty trained teachers for the girls to give music, drawing and needlework lessons, and the second one trained teachers for boys to give drawing, calligraphy and music lessons . Empress Maria Fyodorovna also established a small class for training future architects and stonemasons.

All these classes were abolished in 1830 after their founder had passed away, and these vast properties were allocated to the Nikolayevsky Institute for the Orphans of Staff and Senior Officers. This Institute accommodated many children whose parents had died during the notorious cholera epidemics of that period. The Nikolayevsky Institute gradually occupied all properties, with the orphanage retaining only the fifth floor.

New government, new residents

The Orphanage was abolished after the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, with trade union organisations and newspaper editorial offices moving in. The house on Moskvoretskaya Embankment turned into the Palace of Labour which is described in the famous novel “12 Chairs” by Ilf and Petrov: “Clerks approached the House of Nations from three directions and disappeared inside three entrances. The House stood like a large white five-story square with a thousand windows. The legs of secretaries, typists, superintendents, fully-laden forwarding agents, reporters, female couriers and poets stampeded through its floors and corridors.”

The Dzerzhinsky Artillery Academy, later renamed the Strategic Missile Forces Academy, occupied the entire development in 1938. The Academy remained here until its relocation in 2013. The buildings were not reoccupied over the next few years.

What lies ahead?

The winning bidder will have to restore and upgrade various architectural landmarks and to establish a pedestrian zone here. The development will be improved under the My Street programme and may become a continuation of the unique Zaryadye Park, thereby forming an integral cityscape in the vicinity. Pedestrian routes will link the development with the park. And the city also suggests establishing subtropical zones here as the new park’s continuation.



The area of buildings can only be enlarged by expanding their garrets and underground spaces, without changing the buildings’ size. The investor can also build a glass atrium inside the former Vospitatelny Dom. Therefore the courtyard will become a promenade open all year round. Members of an academic-methodological council, affiliated with Moscow’s  Department of Cultural Heritage (Mosgornaslediye) will monitor the project’s implementation.