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Designers of New York’s High Line Set Their Sights on Moscow’s Former Ghetto

An ambitious new park is set to transform the dilapidated neighborhood that was once the Russian capital’s first Jewish quarter

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Aerial view of the model of the planned park, which is projected to cost $150 million to $200 million. (KB Strelka)
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Just east of the Kremlin, there is a fenced-off construction site. Once, this forlorn strip on the bank of the Moscow River was home to the neighborhood of Zaryadye—and to the artisans, traders, and fortunetellers of what became known as Moscow’s Jewish ghetto. Now it is slated to transform into an ambitious new park designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the firm responsible for New York City’s High Line.

Zaryadye, which abuts the south side of Red Square, has long been a sore spot. Once the Russian capital’s Jewish area, the dilapidated neighborhood was destroyed under Stalin and later became the site of the mammoth Hotel Rossiya. Since the hotel was demolished six years ago, it has stood empty. While surveying the site with Mayor Sergei Sobyanin last winter, President Vladimir Putin called for it to be turned into a park. The city of Moscow, together with the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design, quickly announced a competition to design Zaryadye Park, touted as “a green alternative to Red Square.”

The 16-person international jury of architects and urban planners announced the results on Nov. 12. The Diller Scofidio + Renfro team, which also includes Britain’s Hargreaves and Associates and Danish-Russian firm Cityworks, beat out five other contenders to win first place.

DS+R’s design divides the 13-square-kilometer area into four zones: swamp, forest, steppe, and tundra. With the help of artificial wind, light, and temperature regulation, each area is to have its own microclimate. “It was about taking these familiar landscapes from different parts of Russia and making them magical and unfamiliar,” DS+R architect Brian Tabolt told me.

The design—which also features a philharmonic hall, visitor’s center, and gallery—has no footpaths, encouraging pedestrians to roam freely. “It’s an alternative space to Red Square,” Tabolt said. “A space where you can get lost and discover new things, where you can engage with nature.”

Jury member Peter Walker, whose firm created the National September 11th Memorial, said the judges were drawn to the plan’s year-round functionality. “You have both indoor and outdoor spaces that could operate in summer when it’s hot and in winter when it’s cold,” Walker said.

Today, few Muscovites know that a Jewish quarter once lay on the barren site of the future park. The scattered documentation that survives recalls a few brief, fascinating decades in the city’s history, when the streets went silent on Friday evenings, and women sold matzo in the open air.

***

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Zaryadye was a chic neighborhood home to foreign merchants and boyar clans, including the soon-to-be-royal Romanovs. By the time Jews settled there in the early 19th century, however, the area had become poorer and less fashionable.

At the time, Jews were forbidden from living in Moscow due to the Pale of Settlement, the Eastern European territory created by Catherine the Great. However, registered Jewish traders could still come to Moscow for one month per year. In 1826, Glebovskoye Podvorye, a set of buildings in the center of Zaryadye, was chosen as the sole place in town where they could stay. The following year, only 56 Jews came to the city. More soon arrived as the first Jews retired from military service (opened to Jewish men under Alexander I), at which point they could settle freely. Several years later, the period that Jewish traders could stay in town was extended to six months. By the middle of the century, Glebovskoye Podvorye was home to 192 Jews.

Though bearing the cozy-sounding name of podvorye (“inn”), in reality the area was a strictly policed slum. Upon arriving at the city limits, merchants were escorted to the neighborhood by mounted soldiers. At sundown, the entrance gate was locked for the night.

“All the administration was Christian,” said Ilya Barkussky, a historian at Moscow’s Museum of the History of the Jews in Russia. “They closely observed and wrote reports on the Jews and applied sanctions against those who came illegally.”

A surviving 1838 registry, written in curling, faded script, lists six Jews who were then staying in the settlement, along with their date of arrival and place of residence. They included Yankel Griner of Mogilev, a member of the second merchant guild who arrived on Sept. 9 and stayed in room 66.

Beyond appeasing local merchants, there was another motivation for the city to restrict Jews to Glebovskoye Podvorye: It was a great source of cash. Moscow’s first eye clinic, located nearby, drew much of its income from Jewish patients. “If [Jews] needed to hire workers, they had to use the people presented to them, for the price presented to them,” Barkussky said. “There were a lot of limitations.”

In 1847, a resident filed a complaint about conditions in the settlement. An official was dispatched from St. Petersburg to investigate. “The humiliations that they endure exceed all belief,” the official wrote in a horrified report. “Obligated to live there against their will, driven there like animals to a farmyard, they bow down not only to the inspector, whom they call their master, but even to the cleaners.”

The report was covered up until the reign of Alexander II, “the reformist tsar” best remembered for abolishing serfdom. In 1856, Alexander decreed that Jews could live anywhere in Moscow. By the end of the decade, the city was home to 26,000 Jews, or 3 percent of its population.

As new neighborhoods arose, Glebovskoye Podvorye remained the center of Jewish life—a vibrant community “in no way different from the bazaars of some poor mestechko (Jewish village) in the southern Pale of Settlement,” wrote poet Ilya Belousov in his 1929 memoir Ushedshaya Moskva (“Vanished Moscow”). In the 1870s, Belousov recalled, it was at least half Jewish.

“Moscow’s ghetto,” as the area was known, was home to a wide array of artisans: tailors, furriers, cobblers, printers, button-makers, and milliners who sewed gold leaf onto peaked caps. It also had the only bakery in Moscow that made matzo, which was shipped across Russia.

Tsarist officers on horseback pursue workers in Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike. The scene was filmed on Glebovskoye Podvorye’s aerial walkways.

The buildings’ owners scrimped on stairwells and hallways in favor of outdoor walkways suspended between apartments, known as galdareiki. In 1925, these walkways would become the setting for the climactic chase scene in director Sergei Eisenstein’s first full-length feature, Strike. Eisenstein’s tsarist officers on horseback pursue revolting workers across the walkways, cavalierly throwing a toddler to his death.

In the 19th century, the galdareiki were usually hung with laundry. In summer, Belousov recalled, they became the center of activity: “Cobblers sat on benches and pounded their hammers, Jewish furriers turned Polish beavers into Kamchatka beavers or sewed strips of fur, housewives came out with their household sewing, children scurried about.” On holidays, choirs sang there.

Dank basements were home to fortunetellers, who divined the future for wealthy businessmen. The most successful mystics occupied chic apartments, while those lowest on the ladder lurked in the shadows of the entrance arch.

On Friday evening, Belousov wrote, “noisy, bustling Zaryadye fell silent.” On a “fall holiday” (presumably Sukkot), crowds of men in black frock coats and velvet caps processed down to the Moscow River. At Passover, women washed dishes along the riverbank.

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