Lefortovo is both a palace and a park in Moscow, where you can stroll along 18th-century alleys and delve into the atmosphere of days gone by. Buildings dating back to the times of Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine the Great, two museums boasting stunning collections of weapons, military uniforms and household objects from the reign of Peter the Great blend with 18th and 19th-century alleys, a cascade of ponds, a grotto and the ‘Dam of Venus’. There is a wide variety of activities, including tours and educational programmes.
Historical origins of Lefortovo
Lefortovo is associated with the name of Emperor Peter the Great, who loved to come to the German Quarter. At the time, this area was inhabited by expats from Western Europe. Peter the Great initiated the construction of the Lefortovo Palace (3, 2nd Baumansaya Street) for Franz Lefort, a close friend of his. This was Moscow’s first building constructed using European architectural criteria. The palace was used for diplomatic receptions and ballroom dance events, or ‘assemblies’, where Russian ladies in European dresses took part in activities arranged by the Tsar, something Russia had never seen before. The Lefortovo Palace now houses a public records office.
Some time later, an estate was built on the bank of the Yauza River opposite the German Quarter for Fyodor Golovin, an associate of Peter the Great. In subsequent years, it served as a residence for two Russian empresses, Catherine I and Anna of Russia (‘Summer Annenhof’).
The Lefortovo Park grew along with the nearby palaces. In the early 18th century, Peter the Great would visit this ‘small Versailles on the Yauza River’ more often than he visited the Kremlin. The park was laid out in accordance with European landscape traditions, including a regular layout, geometric flowerbeds and cascades of ponds. Back in the 18th century, ships would enter the lower ponds straight from the river. The park stretched across a number of terraces where fountains cascaded down in the 18th century.
Unfortunately, both the park and the palace have lost much of their former splendor, but the surviving fragments still give us the idea of the magnificence of Lefortovo back in the 18th century. Alleys, ponds, the grotto, the 18th-century ‘Dam of Venus’, sculptures and gazebos transport you away from the hustle and bustle of the city, back to the past centuries. The park features six bodies of water: the Oval, Golovin, Octagonal, Cross, and Great ponds and the Annenhof Canal.
One of the most beautiful sights in the park is the Dam of Venus, built by Dutch physician Nicolaas Bidloo. The dam separated the Golovin pond from the Octagonal pond and Cross island. Water flowed through the dam into the lower cascade of ponds. The supporting wall of the dam had a niche with a statue of Venus surrounded by cupids. At present, a massive foundation dating back to the 18th century is all that survives of the original dam.
One of the surviving monuments is a grotto built by Bartolomeo Rastrelli in the 1730s during the reconstruction of F. Golovin’s estate. The grotto is decorated with fake rocks and stone bowls. In the 18th century, sculptures and a fountain decorated with dolphin figurines were hidden inside the niches of the grotto.
A small gazebo built in 1805 by Matvey Kazakov and restored in the early 20th century marks the place where Peter the Great loved to relax. The small domed rotunda and a monument to Peter the Great are reminiscent of this district’s remote past. Etched on the stele is a quote from Peter the Great’s letter, which says that he hoped to arrive in the park by water from St. Petersburg.
The Catherine Palace (3, 1st Krasnokursantsky Drive), built by A. Rinaldi for Catherine the Great in the immediate vicinity of the park, replaced the Annenhof Palace that burned down in 1771. Architects M. Kazakov and F. Camporesi also contributed to the project. Giacomo Quarenghi completed the construction in the late 18th century, adorning the palace, whose sumptuous interior amazed those who saw it, with a Corinthian column colonnade consisting of 16 columns, the longest in Moscow. Catherine the Great never lived here, but later her son, Emperor Paul I, used this building to house military barracks. Ever since then, the palace has been used by the military and is closed to the public. Today, it is home to the Military Academy.
The perfectly preserved Military Hospital (3, Gospitalnaya Square) and the Sts. Peter and Paul Church built for soldiers (4, Soldatskaya Street) date back to the 19th and 20th centuries, a period when the Lefortovo District was known as the most militarized area in Moscow. This area accommodated a police regiment, the Alexeyev Military School and three cadet corps. The hospital underwent complete reconstruction but it is still there today – it was built by Nicolaas Bidloo, the founder of Russian clinical surgery and the personal physician of Peter the Great. As part of the hospital, Bidloo founded a medical school, an anatomical theatre and a museum, as well as Moscow’s first botanical garden. As for the church, it was consecrated in honour of Saint Peter, the patron saint of Peter the Great, and funded by the soldiers of Lefort’s Regiment. Peter the Great attended the consecration ceremony.
The Sloboda Palace (5, 2nd Baumanskaya Street) is another building of major historic significance. It served as an official residence of Emperor Alexander I, and the imperial palace incorporated the palace of Count A. Bezborodko, the Yellow Palace of Empress Anna of Russia and the Marlin Palace of Empress Elizabeth I. During Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, it was here that Emperor Alexander gathered representatives of Moscow’s nobility to urge them to fight against the invaders. Today, the building houses the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, one of Russia’s best technical universities.
Of great cultural significance is the German (Vvedenskoye) Cemetery (4, Gospitalny Val Street), which was opened after the 1771 plague epidemic. Both Catholics and Lutherans, as well as Orthodox Christians, were buried here. Many famous people have been laid to rest in this cemetery, including fighter pilots of the Normandie-Niemen Regiment who fought on the USSR’s side in WWII; ‘holy doctor’ F. Haass, whose name became synonymous with charity in Moscow; painter Viktor Vasnetsov; writer M. Prishvin and many more.
Opposite the cemetery wall is located the Lefortovo History Museum, the first museum in Moscow to be specifically devoted to the history of one of the city’s districts. Its exhibition focuses primarily on the history of German and Soldiers’ Quarters, Peter the Great, Russian military higher institutions and industrial enterprises. The museum collection includes authentic weapons, military uniforms and household items dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. These exhibits illustrate drastic changes in ordinary people’s lives during the reign of Peter the Great and a quantum leap in the development of the Russian army. Of special significance is the section devoted to the district’s everyday life during WWII. Interestingly, the museum is housed in a ‘krushchyovka’, which is a typical Soviet apartment building from Nikita Khrushchev’s era. Such buildings appeared in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the affordable housing program. Actively involved in Moscow’s cultural life, the museum regularly holds interesting exhibitions and lectures, as well as arranging tours for visitors.
THE EVERYDAY LIFE OF THE URBAN PARK
Lefortovo is a great place for family recreation, mostly during the warmer months (15 April to 1 October). Cafés, bike rentals, and sporting grounds are available for use, along with special events, lectures and classes. Many themed programmes are highly popular with both children and adults, and some lectures focus on specific historical periods of the Lefortovo District. There are some programmes catering for people with intellectual disabilities.