Historical Fatality: “Piece of St Petersburg” in Moscow Destroyed by Thunderstorm


I thought I knew every square meter in downtown Moscow, but one day I occasionally turned into one courtyard and stopped speechless. How was it possible to miss a 60-meter baroque tower, passing right by it so many times before? It is amazing how the building, once the tallest in the city, is now hemmed in by newer tall apartment blocks.

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The place is near Butchers’ Street (Myasnitskaya ulitsa), so called because of the numerous meat stalls that were opened here in the XVII century, as well as local slaughter houses (now long gone). The butchers would dump their waste into the ponds nearby, causing it to be called Stinky Ponds by the locals. Thank God, they are all gone now!

It had been so until the end of the century, when Peter the Great started to regularly take this route to his favorite German Quarter. People who did not belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church had to live separately, on the banks of the Yauza (pronounced YOW-zah), a tributary to the Moscow River. They had their own lifestyle, and Peter got attracted by it, as he always was by everything new and unusual. He regularly went there seeking entertainment, something wild like dancing with single women. He even found a mistress there, and his wife wouldn’t see him for weeks, sitting bored in their Kremlin palace rooms.

Peter actually hated old Moscow aristocracy, and he gave way to many lower class people whose personalities he simply liked. These upstarts built their houses along Butchers’ Street, and the area became gentrified.

One of Peter’s favorites was Alexander Menshikov, whose origins were quite obscure. The most extreme version even says that he was selling pies in the street as a teenager. By the end of Peter’s ruling he was the richest man in the country. He embezzled on a grand scale, building palaces and buying jewels with Crown money. Menshikov bought a big plot of land just off Butchers’ street, built his palace there and dared to erect a church higher than the Ivan the Great Belltower in the Kremlin, which had not been surpassed for two centuries. By the way, it was he who ordered the cleaning of that Stinky Pond. The change was so impressive, that the ponds were immediately named Chistye, or clean.

Menshikov Tower
Menshikov Tower

Menshikov Tower had a clock–during those times, it was significant. A clock marked the center of a city and in Moscow, the clock was placed on the Saviour Tower in the Kremlin. The Saviour Tower clock is the one we all see on TV each New Year’s eve. Thus, Menshikov Tower was claimed as the new center of Moscow. And so it was! At least physically. After the German Quarter had stretched along the bank of the Yauza the city became more elliptical than round in shape and its center shifted to the North-East. It is interesting that in the XX century, in autumn of 1941, when Germans were only 30 km from Moscow, the government worked underground and their offices were at the metro station, Chistiye Prudy, which is just several hundred meters away from Menshikov Tower.

The Tower as we see it now is not completely what it was back then. In the picture you see, there is a tall wooden spire with the Archangel Gabriel on its top. For those who have been to St. Petersburg, it should look familiar. The year after the Tower’s construction was completed, the Italian architect Domenico Trezzini who took part in it moved to the new capital which was one big construction site in those days (1704). There, Trezini designed the Peter and Paul Cathedral on the island that is in the center of Saint-Petersburg now.

Very soon after, all high society followed the Tzar, moving to a new capital. Menshikov spent only a few years in this palace. But Peter’s teenage grandson (he inherited the throne from Peter’s wife) preferred Moscow and spent most of his time in the city.

One summer day during his rule, lightning struck the spire. The resulting fire burned it down and the heavy bells crashed down and collapsed the roof, killing those who had thought they had found refuge during the thunderstorm. You never know! The tower was eventually rebuilt, but it was never as tall as it had been and this “piece of St Petersburg” in Moscow was destroyed.

A visit to the Menshikov Tower is a part of the Hidden Area of Moscow Tour by Tour of Moscow.

About Maria2 Articles
Maria Soboleva is a licensed tour guide and a Tour of Moscow co-founder. She also teaches Russian as a foreign languge, so her whole professional life is dedicated to presenting Russia to foreigners.

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