Five hundred years of foreigners in Moscow

Moscow has always had a shifting attitude to foreigners: welcoming one decade, suspicious and self-conscious during another. Sergei Ivanov's painting "The Arrival of the Foreigners: Seventeenth Century" depicts that ambivalence. Katya Svetova and Chris Klein trace the history of Moscow's foreign community from the end of the Middle Ages to the freedoms of the 1990s. Moscow has attracted, and in some cases imprisoned, expatriates since before Columbus washed ashore in the Antilles. Even before Stockmann's, or John Reed's "Ten Days That Shook the World," or the greatest foreigner of them all, Catherine the Great, Moscow was a magnet for outsiders. Some were rascals and mercenaries looking for thrills -- many still are -- and some were artists and architects invited by the imperial court. Regardless, this is hardly a homogenous place. Foreign influence is part of what makes Muscovite culture and history so rich, no matter what you might think of McDonald's. The story of foreigners in Moscow begins in the Middle Ages, when Viking explorers came from the northwest and hunters crossed the wooded plains from Germany and Poland. Russians did not know quite what to make of them. Because they could not understand their languages, Russians called the early foreigners nemtsy, or mutes. For a long time all foreigners were called nemtsy, but in contemporary Russian nemets has come to mean German. When Tsar Ivan III was outfitting the city as the capital of Russia in the middle of the 15th century, he wanted Moscow to be a showcase of the latest European styles. He lured talented architects and craftsmen from abroad to refurbish the Kremlin, which they reconstructed and adorned with cathedrals, cannons and bells. The foreign masters lived together in a settlement separate from the native population and led fairly affluent lives, even though they were, in a sense, the emperor's slaves. Sequestered in their own colony, the foreigners had as many rights as anyone else, except for one thing: They were not allowed to leave Russia. One of Ivan III's most prized recruits was Aristotle Fiorovanti, an Italian architect who designed the Kremlin's delightful Cathedral of the Assumption in the 1470s. After the structure was finished, the story goes, Fiorovanti became homesick and tried to go back to Italy. He was caught and thrown in jail. He never saw Italy again. Sigmund Herberstein, an Austro-Hungarian diplomat posted here in the mid-16th century, was clearly not a fan of the expatriates in Moscow, and wrote that the place was filled with rogues: "Those who come to live among the Muscovites do not feel safe anywhere else," probably because they were wanted by the police. Herberstein witnessed the establishment of the first big foreign settlement in Moscow, called Naleika. Naleika comes from the Russian word nalei, or pour. As the story goes, this word was rather popular among the settlement's inhabitants who, unlike their Russian neighbors, were free to drink as much alcohol as they wanted. At the time, Russian families were allotted only a certain amount of vodka. Naleika, where the booze flowed freely, was located in the center of the city on the thin island that splits the Moscow River. Herberstein reported that the bulk of the population was made up of about 1,500 mercenaries from Lithuania, Germany, Sweden and Scotland. During Ivan the Terrible's victorious campaign in Lithuania, his army captured a detachment of Scottish officers, who were brought to live in Moscow. When Naleika burned down in 1610, the foreign residents scattered throughout the city. By the 1630s Tverskaya Ulitsa, the Arbat and Myasnitskaya Ulitsa were popular centers for expatriates; there was a Swedish trade house on Tverskaya and an English trading firm on Ulitsa Varvarka near the Kremlin's Ilyinsky Gate. The English firm had its headquarters in a house inherited from Arthur Dee, an English doctor who served as the tsar's family physician in the late 16th century. There was a bit of trouble between the local population and the three German churches that had opened in the center of the city in 1643. The problem was hardly religious. Most of the Germans, who tended to live in clusters around the churches, had a lot of money, and built or bought nice houses. This drove the price of property too high for Russians. Tsar Mikhail's government reacted harshly and had the churches destroyed and prohibited foreigners from buying homes in the city. Influential German doctors and officers managed to skirt the issue, however, by building a church outside the city limits. In 1649, Tsar Alexei took away the foreigners' right to dress in indigenous costumes, which was a purely symbolic measure as the expatriates were not exactly in the habit of wearing traditional Russian clothes. Then, in a new effort to segregate the foreign community, Alexei gave them a spot of land on the Yauza River, northeast of the city. This plan backfired. The Yauza, which flows into the Moscow River near Taganskaya Ploshchad, was one of the main approaches to the city, so in a sense the settlement, called Kakui, was even less isolated than before. Moscow proper has long since gobbled up that area, but you can still find German street names there, such as Baumanskaya Ulitsa, Gospitalny Naberezhnaya, and Kirochny (from kirche, or church) Pereulok. Kakui grew fast. By 1665 the population had risen to about 1,000. It had wide, straight streets and approximately 200 private homes. According to a church record of that year, about a third of the population consisted of professional soldiers serving the tsar, and the rest were doctors, pharmacists and translators. This group could get rowdy, and the neighborhood had a reputation. Augustin Meierberg, one of Herberstein's successors, reported daily brawls and a variety of scandals in Kakui, but there were also fabulous parties, and the spirit of the place was generally high. In the late 1600s, this spirit attracted an important young visitor: Prince Peter Alexeyevich, who later became Peter the Great. Peter often visited the European officers and pharmacists, and among his best friends were a Swiss soldier and a Scottish officer. His first love was a German girl named Anna Mons. Later, when Peter designed St. Petersburg, he relied on foreign architects and planners to plot out the new capital. Sergei Solovyov, a 19th century historian, wrote that because of Peter's frequent visits there, Moscow's "German settlement was the first step toward building St. Petersburg." Peter the Great was a reformer with an international outlook, and his reign was the beginning of an age of tolerance of foreigners and their religions. This tolerance extended into the time of Catherine the Great, a German princess who at age 15 married Tsar Peter III. The empress, who ruled from 1762 to 1796, brought many foreigners into the court, and invited students and professors from abroad to come to Moscow University, and imported thousands of farmers from Germany to cultivate the Volga River valley. According to Pavel Nikolayev, a scholar at the Moscow History Museum, the population of ethnic Germans in that region had reached 3 million by the start of World War II. Catherine the Great's son Pavel, who was tsar from 1796 to 1801, opposed foreign influence and even banned several words of non-Russian origin. Nevertheless, his short reign did nothing to deter the flourishing foreign community. It was the dawn of the 19th century, which for Russia was the century of France. The extent to which Russia fell in love with the nation of wine and philosophers is remarkable. After the French Revolution in 1789, Catherine welcomed that country's aristocrats who fled the reign of terror. By the turn of the century, French was the language of the nobility, and upper-middle-class families employed French nannies and tutors for their children. But it was not just the language that seduced Russians. Clothes, tableware and furniture from France were status symbols as well. Gustav Faberg? came to Russia from France via Estonia in the early 1800s and set up a silver factory near Moscow. By the middle of the 19th century, his talented son Karl, a designer, had made the name Faberg? world-famous. Even the War of 1812, during which Napoleon's armies ripped through the countryside and destroyed Moscow, did not cause people here to dislike the French. "Instead of inspiring hatred, (the War of 1812) made France closer to Russia," said Nikolayev of the Moscow History Museum. "Many of Napoleon's soldiers stayed here after the war and became tailors, barbers, chefs and teachers. These people were fashionable, but not necessarily elite." Even the murder of their most beloved poet could not turn Russians against the French. Alexander Pushkin -- who allegedly was the grandson of an Ethiopian slave presented as a gift to Peter the Great -- was killed by Georges Dantes, a Frenchman who lived permanently in Russia, in a duel in 1837. Tsar Alexander III came to power in 1881, and he felt that the Frenchification of Russia had gone far enough. He insisted that the imperial court's maids of honor wear traditional Russian outfits, and he invented a comfortable new uniform for the army, which had its roots in Russian folk clothing. But foreigners continued to come, especially engineers. Russia's push to industrialize meant that consultants from Germany and England came to revamp factories in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and agricultural experts came from the United States. At the turn of this century the foreign community saw a spurt of growth in the Chinese population. At that point, the Chinese were doing virtually all the laundry business in Moscow -- their stores were all over the city. In addition, they made toys that were very popular. The Chinese presence in Moscow ended abruptly in 1927, however, when Lenin's New Economic Policy was discontinued and the last vestiges of capitalism were swept away. Contrary to what many think, the Kitai Gorod, or Chinatown, section of Moscow did not get its name because it was a bastion of Chinese immigrants. Historians believe that the area used to be a center for basket weaving; Kitai is also archaic Russian for "basket." After the revolution many Americans were intrigued by the place: John Reed, a journalist from Oregon who lived here and wrote about the Revolution in "Ten Days That Shook the World," is the only foreigner buried in the Kremlin wall. American business people were curious about the prospects here. The Ford Motor Company, for example, had a large stake in the construction of the GAZ automobile factory near Nizhny Novgorod in the 1930s. World War II, the command economy, and Stalin's considerable paranoia made it impossible for foreigners to operate freely in Russia after the 1930s. In 1945, at the end of the war, Stalin transported many specialists and, in some cases, entire factories from Germany as war trophies. The Karl Zeiss optic plant was brought to Russia, and its headquarters was in Krasnogorsk, a few kilometers west of Moscow. Unlike 300 years earlier, the German scientists were not separated from the Russians in the town. Their children even went to the same schools. "Our neighbor's wife, Plumme, made sausage sandwiches for her husband for breakfast," says Nina Yegorova, 70, who lived in Krasnogorsk in 1947 when her husband was a manager at the optic plant. "That was strange for us, because we were used to a bigger meal in the morning." Yegorova says wardrobe also sometimes caused problems. "Once my husband had to forbid the Germans from wearing shorts at the office, because the Russians complained that they could not stand looking at their hairy legs." Nevertheless, she continued, "In general we were pretty similar. After the plant was completed and the Germans went home, my husband used to visit his old partners in Germany on business. They always were friendly and even now we sometimes get postcards from Germany." Oddly enough, the foreign community here during the cold war era resembled that of the 1600s more than the 1990s in that it was strictly cordoned off from the Russian population. Foreigners lived in special apartment blocks and shopped in special stores, and Soviet citizens could be denounced for associating with them. For the first time, there were hardly any expatriate entrepreneurs: all the Western sorts who lived here were either diplomats or journalists. Citizens of other communist countries -- except China, with which the U.S.S.R. had touch-and-go relations -- were welcome to live and study in Moscow, and there are still plenty of students at Moscow State University from Cuba, Vietnam and Angola. When reform came to Russia in the late 1980s, foreign businesses began returning to Russia. As visa requirements became more relaxed, people from abroad spread out from the UPDK apartment blocks around Kutuzovsky Prospekt to live all over the city. Restaurants, dry cleaners and stores owned by expatriates have been appearing at an exponential rate. Some foreigners compare Moscow in the 1990s to Paris in the 1920s, but Nikolayev, the historian from the Moscow History Museum, scoffs at that, and says that the situation is not nearly as positive as it seems. "Since the beginning, the Russian attitude toward foreigners was wary because they were unknown," Nikolayev says. "Now in a way it is the same thing. The older generation is still suspicious, while the younger generation tends to worship foreigners too much. In this sense, the decision of Mayor Luzhkov to make all signs in the city be written in Russian is a good thing. Russia is Russia after all and foreigners should not feel like masters here. They should feel like guests." Many probably do, but it is also true that this wave of foreign influence in Moscow is unlike the others in that Russians and Westerners now work, live, shop and dine side by side. For every Korean or American who drives a company car, there is a Frenchman or an Australian who takes the metro to work every day. This should come as no surprise. For 500 years Moscow has been a cosmopolitan city. BUSINESS Much as visitors today are surprised by Moscow's ever-present kiosks, travelers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were often struck by the number of small traders on city streets. Merchant Moscow was neatly divided into lanes and rows of stalls specializing in specific goods, like shoes, fish, icons, gold, silk, bells and hats. Perhaps fearing racketeers, traders posted guard dogs by their stalls. In the following quotations and in the others on subsequent pages, early foreign visitors to Moscow give their impressions of the city and its people. "Muscovites are superior in their skill and cleverness. People come from all over to take part in a buy and sell market on Red Square that is so busy the pushing and shoving is almost unbearable. They trade everything under the sun, no holds barred." -- Paul Aleppsky, an archdeacon from Poland, writing in the 1650s. "It's hard not to agree that Moscow has as many merchant's stalls as in any other European city. It's true, though, that they are so tiny and narrow the businessman can barely move around among his goods." -- Swedish diplomat Johann Kulburger writing in 1674. WOMEN "Wives and women aren't held in the same honor as among other peoples; on the contrary Russian men treat them as they would slaves. Noble Muscovites jealously guard their women, forbidding them to attend feasts or festivals, and hardly let them out of the house. Other women sell themselves fairly cheaply and are far too inclined to foreigners, eagerly giving themselves away for the asking." -- Venetian ambassador Marco Foskarino, 1577. "Women aren't happy with natural beauty and every day they put on makeup. It's a habit that has developed into both a virtue and a duty. As is their custom, they decorate themselves richly with pearls and jewels ... In general you won't find any country where people so value cleansing. Women find a sort of high pleasure in it. It's a tradition that no woman or girl can appear before the tsar if she had not been in the baths the day before." -- Hans Ayrman, a native of Nuremberg who visited Russia on diplomatic affairs, 1660. HOMES Many of the first foreigners to arrive in Moscow were surprised at how many residents owned their own wooden two- or three-story homes, complete with a garden and yard. But fires were so common soldiers and watchmen in the early 1600s were obliged to carry axes. Muscovites didn't panic over fires, however -- wooden homes could be bought or built in the very un-Soviet span of a day or two. "On any day you can buy complete homes, which in the city's squares peasants sell in pieces from their sleds. Often in the city fires cause great damage, and therefore smoking in public places is strictly forbidden." -- Hans Ayrman, a native of Nuremberg who visited Russia on diplomatic affairs in 1660. CHARACTER "Nature has forced Russians to get used to a harsh life, both in their housing and food. I heard one Russian say that if the beatings weren't so bad, it would be much more fun to live in prison than in freedom. When it comes to debauchery and drunkenness, there is no people equal anywhere." -- Richard Chancellor, a British seaman who visited Russia in the mid-16th century. "Deceiving one another is considered among them a terrible, vile crime. Rape and public debauchery is also generally rare, and the unnatural vices are completely unknown." -- traveller Albert Campenzi writing to Pope Clement VII. DRINKING "Russians are very good-looking, both men and women, but they are also generally crude. They are great drunkards and love to boast of it, looking down on teetotalers. They enjoy a drink made from honey and hops that isn't at all bad, especially if it's aged. But their monarch doesn't permit people to ferment their own, for if they had such freedom they would be drunk every day and would kill each other like brutes ... Russian life passes in the following way: In the morning they work the markets until about midday, and then make their way to the taverns to eat and drink. After that it's impossible to interest them in any sort of endeavor." -- Venetian ambassador Ambrogio Contarini writing in his travel diary in 1476.