Sightseeing tour of Soviet Moscow
House on the embankment
Sinister monument to Stalin's era By Pavel Sergeev
Many houses in Moscow are located on the Moskva River,
but only one is known as the House on the Embankment. The legendary dismal
building in Constructivist style occupies a large area between the Bersenevskaya Embankment, across from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and the Vodootvodny Canal. Its official address is 2 Serafimovich Street.
During the mass political purges of the 1930s this house was inhabited
by top Soviet officials. To this time the gloomy building with its narrow
courtyards never warmed by the sun and its location on the site of former
Bolotnaya (Swampy) Square, where criminals were publicly executed in the
15th-18th centuries, remains a sinister reminder of the past.Many of its
inhabitants met tragic fates. In the '30s and '40s one-third were deported
to labor camps or shot or committed suicide. Their restless souls continue
to wander about the house with the mysterious layout, backdoor passages,
and hidden elevators.
When Yuri Trifonov's novel The House on the Embankment was published in
the Soviet Union in 1976, it immediately became a cult book among the
Soviet intelligentsia and was later translated into many European languages.
The novel's characters grow up in this house and then each goes his own
way, some becoming big shots, others living out their days as guards at
I read the novel that same year, but it was not until 1990 that I had
a chance to visit the notorious house. I accompanied a Finnish journalist
who wished to interview Mikhail Shatrov, a dramatist who had written enthusiastic plays about Vladimir Lenin and his associates and whose ideological loyalty must have earned him his huge apartment with a view of the Kremlin.
For centuries the location of the House on the Embankment had a bad reputation.
The whole area beyond the Moskva River across from the Kremlin was often
flooded and was known as the Swamp. In the 15th century, being the site
of public executions, the Swamp gradually turned into a tremendous graveyard.
Popular belief that public executions took place at Lobnoye Mesto on Red
Square is incorrect. No more than five people were executed there in all
of Russian history. It was in the Swamp that the chief of the court guards
of Ivan the Terrible, Malyuta Skuratov, tortured people charged with high
When soil was dug out to lay the foundation for the house, such quantities
of human bones and scalps were found that it took several trucks to carry
them away. It was on these human bones that the Government House was erected
in 1931. But the Soviet Communists were never superstitious.
ALL IN ONE
In the 1920s Soviet architects were keen on designs that combined apartments
and services in one complex. The idea of building such an apartment house
for the Communist Party elite and top government officials was implemented
by Boris Iofan and cost 14 million rubles, a gigantic sum in those days.
Construction began in 1927 and after three years a gray giant of a building
was standing opposite the Kremlin with entrance arches of two or three
stories leading into the courtyards.
To accentuate its special link with the Kremlin, the house was to be faced
with red and pink granite. But when complaints about the exorbitant expenditure
of public money threatened to escalate into a scandal, it was decided
to save on appearance. So the house remained gray. But everything else
betrayed a generous hand. Each entrance lobby had a wide staircase. There
were two large apartments on each floor. The living area alone in a five-room
apartment covered 200 square meters. Each apartment had a gas cooker and
a bathroom with running hot water, a luxurious novelty for Moscow in those
days. Telephones, radios, phonographs, furniture of fumed oak with a Kremlin
inventory number and other attributes of luxury were all supplied free
to party and government elite.
The wives and daughters of Stalin's executives had no need to slave in
the kitchen. Special facilities in one of the three courtyards supplied
the tenants with hot dinners at fantastically low prices. The house also
had laundry services, a department store, library, gym, childcare center,
post office, movie theater, and savings bank, in a word, everything one
might need for a comfortable life.
Government House came to symbolize Soviet prosperity. Each family had
a domestic. Even in the hungry '30s the women of the House wore furs and
jewelry, the men sported expensive cars, and apartments were furnished
with rare antiques and works of art. In the evening the gray giant overlooking
the river lit up with crystal chandeliers, and laughter and music from
the open windows carried far. The gilded youth were having a good time.
A character in Trifonov's novel recalls those days with nostalgia 40 years
later, now a decrepit cemetery guard: "He crossed the bridge, looked at
the low, long and shapeless house on the embankment with its thousands
of sparkling windows, picked out the window of his old apartment where
his happiest days had flashed by, and lost himself in dreamy thoughts
of a miracle that might change his life once again."
The house was commissioned in 1931. Getting an apartment there, one joined
the caste of the chosen. The first residents included the top party theoretician Nikolay Bukharin, Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a senior Kremlin executive Georgy Malenkov, and many famous Soviet writers, airmen, and polar explorers.
After the death of his wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, Josef Stalin saw to
it that his children, Vasily Stalin and Svetlana Alliluyeva,moved in so
that the two lived comfortably and were at the same time under constant
supervision: all the porters at the house were officers of the NKVD, the
KGB of those days.
Unknown to the tenants, most of the apartments were bugged. Some were
occupied by political immigrants who had fled their countries after spying
for the Soviet Union. There were claims too that a secret underground
passage linked the Kremlin to the House.
END OF A PROSPEROUS LIFE
The comfortable life of the tenants came to an abrupt end in the mid-'30s,
when arrests and searches were launched on a grand scale. By 1939, 280
of the 500 or so apartments had been sealed and their residents sent to
jails for political prisoners. Marshal Tukhachevsky and his wife were
shot, and his daughter was deported from Moscow. Nikolay Bukharin left
the building with the smear of "enemy of the people" and soon after was
shot. The beautiful wife of Professor Shirshov of the Academy of Sciences
was exiled for five years because she had refused to accept the advances
of the all-powerful NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria.
The young too had their tragedies. The House produced a Soviet version
of Romeo and Juliet. The son of the aviation industry minister, Volodya
Shakhrin, and his sweetheart, Nina, daughter of the diplomat Umansky,
preferred death to separation. When Nina's father received a posting abroad,
Nina was told she would have to accompany her parents. So Volodya shot
Nina and then himself.
GHOSTS OF THE PAST
After Stalin's death the government complex on the embankment lost all
significance. Nothing but the enormous apartments, wide entrance lobbies
and the names of its former celebrated tenants carved on the marble and
bronze memorial plaques circling the house remind one of the past. Today
the few descendants of the first tenants have as neighbors the Russian
newly rich and wealthy foreigners. The Russians appreciate the house's
size, location, and view of the Kremlin and the Cathedral of Christ the
Savior, the foreigners its historic past. The Russians have pulled down
partitions and laid out winter gardens and swimming pools in their flats.
One eccentric turns his 50-square-meter balcony into a skating rink in
winter and invites in friends to skate. A wealthy foreigner has invested
heavily in period furniture that belonged to Kremlin executives in the
'30s. The House continues to attract romantically-minded and adventurous
Russians. Attempts have been made to discover the underground passages
reportedly leading to the Kremlin. Rumors about the passages have circulated
for decades but no one has ever found them. The new tenants are rather
indifferent to both rumors and history. But when a wealthy Russian buys
an apartment, he does extensive renovating and then invites a priest to
bless the place and drive the devil out.Unlike Stalin's elite, who were
not afraid to live on the bones of the executed, today's moneyed Russians
are very superstitious.
Over the past decade a supermarket, cosmetic clinic, and restaurant have
appeared on the first floor. The Variety Theater, situated in the building,
is active as ever. In October it will launch a Russian version of the
musical Chicago. The theater is located next to Russian Press House, an
umbrella group of some two dozen small newspapers and magazines.
Yet despite all this activity the House on the Embankment still gives
off a funereal atmosphere, even on the hottest summer days. Apparitions
of the past have never left it. Some tenants claim to have seen the phantom
of Malyuta Skuratov from the days of Ivan the Terrible, others - the victims
of Stalin's purges.