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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Unique Open House

From communal kitchens for the working class to secret courtyards for Moscow's aristocracy, there is a whole dimension of the Russian capital that never comes fully into view since many historical building are occupied by embassies, companies and organizations that don't allow strangers past their front gates. Fortunately, some of them are willing to open their doors to visitors on May 18, which has been designated "Heritage Day," a time when Muscovites can take a peek at some of these off-limits architectural landmarks and learn about their histories.

The quest to make Moscow's landmarks accessible at least once a year began eight years ago. A similar program exists in France and some other European countries, where many historical buildings remain private residences, hidden from the public eye. As the program increases in popularity, every year more locations open up on May 18, including landmarks that have been closed for extended renovation, such as Pashkov House.

A picturesque building across from the Kremlin, Pashkov House served as the prototypical earthly launchpad from which Bulgakov's Woland and Master said goodbye to Moscow before their departure. The building was once a public museum and reading room. It served as a branch of the nearby state library before being closed down for more than 20 years after construction on the Borovitskaya metro station severely damaged the mansion. Renovation was completed last fall, and two fancy auctions were held at Pashkov House, but it will not fully reopen until 2009, and even then only to State Library users. Eventually, it will house the music and manuscript departments of the library.

Although many of Moscow's estates were nationalized after the revolution, some of the most beautiful locations were converted into foreign embassies and remain fenced bastions throughout the year. Nineteen of them will open their doors to visitors this Sunday, some offering guided tours that reveal amazing stories.

Maria Antonova / MT
The mansion of the Uruguayan ambassador was designed by Fyodor Shekhtel.

Among them is the lavish "pseudo-Russian style" French Embassy on Ulitsa Yakimanka, which has the architectural features of a teremok, an ornate home in Russian folklore. Rich manufacturer Nikolai Igumnov hired an architect from Yaroslavl to build the house in what was then the outskirts of Moscow. After the revolution, the Igumnov estate became home to the Brain Institute, which secretly studied Lenin's postmortem brain. To fathom the secret of human genius, the institute also began collecting brains of other notables, eventually running out of space and moving to a more spacious location.

The Italian Embassy, located in the Arbat neighborhood, is in the Berg mansion, which held Moscow's first ball lit by electric lights at the turn of the last century. It later served as the headquarters for the Comintern in Moscow, where Communist leaders like Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinovyev met with one another and foreign delegations. Although committed to overthrowing the bourgeoisie, they nevertheless relished the splendid interior of this house, whose original owner, Sergei Berg, fled to Switzerland.

The Uruguayan ambassador's residence is housed in a Yermolayevsky Pereulok mansion. Architect Fyodor Shekhtel built it for himself in 1896. By that time, he had completed several commissions in Moscow and was a recognized master of the modernist style. "Sometimes cabmen take it for a kirk and sometimes for a synagogue," Shekhtel wrote jokingly about his home in a letter to Anton Chekhov. He lived in the whimsical mansion for 12 years before moving to another house he designed nearby on Bolshaya Sadovaya Ulitsa, also open to public on May 18. Unfortunately for Shekhtel, both of his buildings were nationalized after the revolution, and he died in a communal flat in 1926.

Some of Moscow's constructivist buildings will also open their doors. Konstantin Melnikov's "Dorkhimzavod Club," for example, is opening for the first time following its restoration. The architect designed five clubs for factory workers in Moscow, but most of his creations have fallen into disrepair. The clubs, constructed as secular public spaces for the new and improved Soviet citizen, were meant to "show what the new way of life is all about," as Melnikov wrote about the club structure. Ironically, the building will now house a bank, while the factory kitchen is to be converted into office space.

A list of open locations is available at Moscow Cultural Heritage Committee's web site, You can also reach the committee at 988-2676 or 637-42-17. Many of the locations will have limited access, so call ahead to sign up. Public museums will be free on May 18th and will administer special tours and programs.