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Spiridonovka: a street of two masterpieces

Spiridonovka Str.

Spiridonovka is a short street between the Boulevard and Garden Rings that you could walk along from end to end in three minutes. But do not hurry: you can visit three museums, see Fyodor Shekhtel’s principal buildings, and stroll meditatively around one of the capital’s richest places in terms of history and architecture. 

By 1902 Fyodor Shekhtel had completed the basic construction of the best-known example of Russian Moderne architecture at 2/6 Spiridonovka — a mansion for Stepan Ryabushinsky, a researcher into Ancient Russian icon painting who came from a famous merchant family of Old Believers. The two-floor building, faced with light ceramic tiles and decorated by an elegant mosaic frieze depicting irises, orchids and other plants, has no main facade and does not lend itself easily to visual observation. The mansion is totally asymmetric: the large windows, the mighty protruding porches, the horizontal cornice and the split-level roof are all clear and geometrically correct in isolation, but in aggregate all the elements create a chaotic picture. Shekhtel’s most important work, despite its apparent massiveness, is very elegant and architecturally pure, probably on account of its light monochrome color range and its well thought-out composition. The interiors of Ryabushinsky’s mansion are also unusual. The central staircase is like a wave washing ashore the lampshade in the form of a jellyfish on the first floor. The drawing-room ceiling is decorated with molded field and marsh plants with large snails slithering over them, while salamanders and water lilies wind around the capital of the column on the second floor. On the secret third floor is an Old Believers’ chapel, decorated with “tapestry” painting in the Neo-Russian style, combining early Byzantine and Ancient Russian elements with Style Moderne.

After the revolution of 1917 the building was occupied by the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, which could barely cope with the influx of foreign citizens escaping from Russia. For a time the mansion was subsequently the home of the State Publishing House, where Yesenin, Mayakovsky and Bryusov were frequent visitors. Then in 1931 Maxim Gorky returned from Italy. The rumor that preceded his arrival was that the authorities proposed to give him something like a cathedral or a palace. They gave him what was, in Gorky’s own words, “a ridiculous house” — Ryabushinsky’s mansion. The author of the play The Lower Depths — about Moscow’s beggars — ordered the fireplace with its bas-relief of a butterfly-woman to be removed, called his room “a ballerina’s bedroom,” and generally was initially dissatisfied with the mansion. Gorky lit bonfires in his garden in the evenings and received guests in the former merchant’s rooms: Nikolay Bukharin, Samuil Marshak, Romain Rolland and Joseph Stalin. The mansion now houses the Maxim Gorky Museum, entry to which is free of charge. It features a fascinating collection of Oriental art and the writer’s personal belongings, but the principal exhibit remains Shekhtel’s magnificent interiors.

In 1942 Alexey Tolstoy, author of the novelsPeter I and The Road to Calvary, settled in the former servants’ quarters on the second floor of a wing of the mansion. The writer’s museum opened in 1987, featuring old furniture and individual works of art from Tolstoy’s personal collection.

The street takes a sharp bend around the perimeter of No. 4, which was built in 1900. In 2009 the House of Icons opened in the merchant Pyotr Erlanger’s former abode: the museum, which occupies three floors, boasts a collection of religious art from Byzantium, Greece and Russia, mainly from Novgorod and the Far North. In a display devoted to the history of Spiridonovka you can see a model of the St. Spyridon Church, destroyed in 1930, and read the interrogation of its senior priest Ivan Yanushev, who was subsequently shot. By the way, the museum is open until 10 p.m., which is very fortunate and a rarity.

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