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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BOOKWORM: Hidden Views




For the ruble equivalent of a mere $4.50, now anybody can see the interiors of some of the most luxurious residences of Moscow's foreign ambassadors. Included in this unbelievable offer are three drawing rooms at Spaso House, the home of the American ambassador, the private study of his French counterpart, the dining room of the Belgian ambassador's residence, the spectacular fireplace in the home of the ambassador from Uruguay, and the infamous ballroom of the Austrian Embassy, where the ill-fated Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty was signed in 1939.


(Why, by the way, did the Germans choose the Austrian Embassy as the backdrop to the treaty signing? Because the building was annexed by the Germans in 1938 when Germany annexed Austria.)


But wait - that is not all. Your $4.50 will also buy you detailed history on 33 exquisite mansions and palaces that are today the property of the Foreign Ministry.


Yes, I am talking about a coffee-table book with more than 200 quality color photographs of the facades, private gardens, back yards and interiors of these charming buildings.


This is not the first book of its kind. In the early 1990s I had the chance to peruse two marvelous editions about the Italian and British embassies in Moscow, but these were privately produced abroad and not printed for sale.


To the best of my knowledge, this $4.50 gem of a book - commissioned by UPDKa, the government agency in charge of diplomatic buildings, and published in 1997 by an obscure publishing house - was not intended for sale either. Only 16,500 copies were printed, but apparently some were not properly distributed and they ended up for sale at Dom Knigi on Novy Arbat, where I found this interesting tome last month.


A thorough 40-page review on the general history of Moscow's mansions over the last three centuries is followed by 10 chapters with detailed descriptions and photographs of the 10 most spectacular mansions in the city, including the Morozovs house at 17 Spiridonovka Street that now serves as the reception hall for the Foreign Ministry, and Pyotr Pertsov's house - now the main office of UPDKa - across from the newly rebuilt Christ the Savior Cathedral.


The other eight masterpieces are worth naming. They are the Dom Igumnova on Yakimanka (the residence of the French ambassador), Dom Verstovskogo on Khlebny Pereulok (the Embassy of Iceland), Dom Shekhtelya on Yermolayevsky Pereulok (the residence of the ambassador from Uruguay), Osobnyak Dorookhinskoy on Prechistensky Pereulok (the Australian Embassy), Osobnyak Mindovskogo on Povarskaya Ulitsa (the Embassy of New Zealand), Osobnyak Gribova on Khlebny Pereulok (the residence of the Belgian ambassador), the mansion of the 19th-century Russian textile magnate Nikolai Mindovsky on Myortvy Pereulok (the Austrian Embassy) and Osobnyak Vtorova at Spasopeskovskaya Ploshchadka, better known as Spaso House, the home of the American ambassador.


Each chapter offers a history of the building, biographies of its architect and owners, a museum-like guided tour around the house, and some stories about what happened inside these charmed walls, such as the case of the vanishing vases at the New Zealand Embassy.