The Polish in Moscow

The Polish in Moscow


  • Names such as Staropansky Lane or Novy Pansky Dvor point to the Poles’ presence in the history of Moscow.
  • Moscow has beautiful Catholic cathedrals and churches financed by the local Polish community.
  • One of the Polish churches is the Church of Saint Apostles Peter and Paul, built between 1839 and 1845.
  • The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin Mary on Malaya Gruzinskaya Street was built in keeping with the best Gothic architectural traditions.
  • A Monument to Pope John Paul II, located in the court of the Foreign Literature Library, is thought to be the best monument to this Pope in the world.
  • Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz lived in Moscow between 1825 and 1827 where he would often meet Alexander Pushkin, as evidenced by a memorial plaque in Glinishchevsky Lane.

The relationship between neighbouring Russia and Poland has been complicated and very significant for both sides for centuries. The Polish presence in Moscow can be traced back to the war of the 17th century. Yet, the centuries that followed saw notable contributions of dozens of famous Polish people such as artists and military commanders would would shape the history and image of the Russian capital. Moscow also has beautiful Catholic cathedrals, which wouldn’t have been built and preserved until now if it weren’t for the support of the Polish expatriate population.


Церковь Марона ПустынникаThe first migrants from Poland appeared in Moscow in the 14th century, soon after it became the capital of Rus’. These were pans (“pan” means a Polish gentleman) who arrived to serve Vasily Ithe Grand Prince of Moscow from 1389 until 1425 of Moscow in 1387. They settled in the centre of Moscow, around Bogoyavlensky LaneRussian: Bogoyavlenskiy pereulok or Богоявленский переулок, where the so-called Pan CourtRussian: Panskiy dvor or Панский двор emerged. Polish merchants would also stay there when coming to Moscow. The name of Staropansky LaneRussian: Staropanskiy pereulok or Старопанский переулок, in particular, was prompted by the arrival of the Poles in Moscow. There were other Polish-inspired names, such as the New Pan CourtRussian: Novy panskiy dvor or Новый панский двор (around LubyankaRussian: Лубянка metro station) or the Lithuanian CourtRussian: Litovskiy dvor or Литовский двор (around Tverskaya StreetRussian: Tverskaya ulitsa or Тверская улица).

There were pans’ slobodas“free settlements” around medieval Moscow: one in SyromyatnikiRussian: Сыромятники (ChkalovskayaRussian: Чкаловская metro station), the other around the YakimankaRussian: Якиманка area (PolyankaRussian: Полянка metro station). They were mostly inhabited by the military: Moscow regiment commanders, including quite a few of Lithuanian origin. Pans’ sloboda residents gradually converted to the Orthodox religion and finally assimilated culturally. Even today, Moscow is home to the Church of St. Maron the Hermit in Old PaneiRussian: tserkov’ Marona chto v starykh Panekh or церковь Марона, «что в старых Панех» (32/2 B. Yakimanka StRussian: ulitsa Bolshaya Yakimanka or улица Большая Якиманка), which is now part of the Russian Orthodox Church.

1169_image2_sMany Poles came to Moscow in the Time of Troublesperiod from 1598 to 1613 (there are other versions of the periodization), marked by civil war, Russian-Polish and Russian-Swedish wars, the most severe political and socio-economic crisis, during the Polish occupation of the early 17th century. It all began with the arrival of a new tsar in Moscow in 1605 (his contemporaries called him Dmitry, the son of Ivan the Terrible). Soon after that, his fiancée Maryna Mniszech (1588–1614), daughter of rich nobleman Jerzy Mniszech, arrived from Poland. She was accompanied by hundreds of Polish and Lithuanian courtiers who met their compatriots already living in Moscow.

The Russian tsar and the Polish noblewoman had a pompous wedding in 1606. Maryna Mniszech became Russia’s first ever tsarina who was married in a church wedding. However, the new tsar began to behave strangely: he would only favour foreigners, meet with the Catholic Jesuits, wear foreign clothes, and ignore Russian household traditions. Interestingly, Maryna Mniszech brought the first fork to Russia, a tool which surprised  Muscovites. Combined with other factors, it all produced the suspicion that Dmitry was not the real tsar. Tsar Dmitry (False Dmitry I) was murdered in a popular revolt which took place on 17 May 1606, along with many of the Poles from his retinue. Maryna Mniszech was able to escape but finally ended her days in prison once she had been apprehended.

A lot of Polish noblemen supported False Dmitry II who also laid a claim to power in Russia in 1608–1610. In 1611, according to a new treaty between the Moscow boyara member of the highest rank of the feudal society in Russia government and the Polish king, Polish prince Vladislav IV was proclaimed the new tsar of Russia in the absence of immediate heirs to Ivan the Terrible. A Polish garrison entered Moscow and stayed there until October 1612. Hetmans Aleksander Gosiewski and Mikołaj Struś were the city majors.

1170_image3_sHowever, a status quo like that was only good for the Moscow boyars. The People’s Volunteer Army headed by Duke Dmitry Pozharsky and merchant Kuzma Minin regained Moscow in a battle with the troops of Hetman Khodkevich. The key battles took place in Kitay-gorodRussian: Китай-город, ZamoskvorechieRussian: Замоскворечье and Arbatsky GateRussian: Arbatskiye vorota or Арбатские ворота.

Even today, if you walk around the building of the Hotel MetropolRussian: gostinitsa Metropol' or гостиница Метрополь Moscow, you can see the remains of the massive walls of the Kitay-gorod fortress defended by the Polish garrison (Teatralny PassageRussian: Teatral’ny proezd or Театральный проезд). The day of Moscow’s liberation in 1612 (November 4) is celebrated in Russia as National Unity Day.


Former Polish library in Milyutinsky laneAiming to preserve their cultural identity, the Poles chose the Church to be their command centre. The Catholic Church of Saint Apostles Peter and PaulRussian: Katolicheskiy Khram sv. apostolov Petra i Pavla or Католический храм св. апостолов Петра и Павла (18A Milyutinsky LaneRussian: Milyutinskiy pereulok or Милютинский переулок) appeared in Moscow in 1839–1845. It was built in the Gothic style to Alessandro Gilardi’s design and commissioned by the Polish community. The church was considered to be “Polish”, as opposed to the “French” Catholic Church of St. LouisRussian: Khram Svyatogo Lyudovika Frantsuzskogo or Храм Святого Людовика Французского (12 Malaya Lubyanka StRussian: улица Малая Лубянка). Mikhail Bykovsky (1801–1885), disciple of Russified Pole Dormidont Bykovsky, is considered one of the best Moscow architects of the 19th century. He designed a number of large public buildings and churches in Moscow, which include the complex of Ioanno-Predtechensky ConventRussian: Ioanno-Predtechenskiy Monastyr’ or Иоанно-Предтеченский монастырь in the Italian Renaissance style.
A short time later, a Polish library was set up in the neighbouring building (16 Milyutinsky Lane) using the funds of art patron Alfons Shanyavsky. In the Soviet era, the library building was reorganised and the lane was renamed after Julian Marchlewski, the Polish revolutionary who had founded the Social-Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. The Church of Saint. Peter and Paul was closed down in 1937, the clergy were persecuted, and the building was turned into a cinema. The building was rebuilt afterwards but has not been used for its original intended purpose ever since. The Church of St. Louis remains the only Catholic church in this area, and regular services are held there by the laity of the former Church of Sts. Peter and Paul.

1172_image5_sThe Polish people in Moscow also constructed the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin MaryRussian: Kafedral’ny Sobor Neporochnogo Zachatiya Presvyatoy Devy Marii or Кафедральный Собор Непорочного Зачатия Пресвятой Девы Марии (27 Malaya Gruzinskaya StRussian: Malaya Gruzinskaya ulitsa or Малая Грузинская улица). It was designed by Tomasz Bohdanowicz-Dworzecki, lecturer at the Moscow School of Arts, Sculpture and Architecture. The cathedral was built on the then outskirts of Moscow, and the Orthodox clergy forbade its decoration with statues. Yet, made in keeping with the best traditions of Gothic architecture, the cathedral became a jewel in the crown of the capital. It was plundered and closed down in the Soviet era, but today the fully restored cathedral is the centre of Moscow’s Catholic community. Services in Polish are regularly held there. Pope John Paul II contributed to the reconstruction project: the antechurch of the cathedral presents a memorial tablet dedicated to the Pope, and one of the spires bears the coats of arms of the Pope and Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz. At present, the bell tower of the cathedral has five bells manufactured by the famous Felchinski Bell Foundry in Przemyśl, Poland: their names are Our Lady of Fatima, John Paul II, Saint Thaddeus, Anniversary-2000, and Saint Victor.

A memorial to Pope John Paul II was unveiled in the yard of the Foreign Literature Library (1 Nikoloyamskaya StRussian: Nikoloyamskaya ulitsa or Николоямская улица) in 2011. It is considered to be the best of all the memorials to the Pope around the world. Although Pope John Paul II never visited Moscow, he often expressed his desire and hope to do so. The memorial was created by sculptors Alexander Vasyakin, Ilya and Nikita Feklin.
1174_image7_sThe memorial represents the Pope sitting with a Bible in his hands without Papal regalia. The lines on the page quote the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word…” The memorial depicts John Paul II as a thinker, a spiritual teacher, and a humanist. The solemn anthem of “Te Deum” (“Thee, O God, we praise”) written specifically for the occasion was played at the beginning of the unveiling ceremony.


Thousands of Poles settled in Russia after being captured during the bloody wars between Russia and Poland in the mid-17th century. A lot of Poles also escaped to Russia, fleeing from conflicts in Poland. These migrants often included junior officers and young Polish szlachta noblemen, many of whom became part of the Russian nobility afterwards. Many Moscow noble and even duke dynasties were of Polish origin, such as the Svyatopolk-Chetvertinskys, the Yaguzhinskys, the Pashkovs, the Grushetskys, or the Khoroshkeviches.

A plaque dedicated to APuškinu and MickevichuThe name of Alfons Shanyavsky, Major General of Polish origin (1837–1905), left a large footprint in the history of Moscow’s education. He was a man of incredible intellectual capacity who graduated with honours from all the educational institutions he attended, topping all the rankings. After retirement from the military at the height of his career, he went into gold mining. He made quite a fortune in Siberian gold mines and moved to Moscow when he retired.

In 1905, he placed his plot of land and his house in the Arbat under the management of the Moscow City Dumathe Russian regional parliament in Moscow to organise a People’s University there. In 1911, he constructed a huge building for the same university in Miusskaya SquareRussian: Miusskaya ploshchad’ or Миусская площадь. The People’s University had no official standing and was established for all people regardless of their religion and educational background. However, its graduates did not obtain diplomas. Seminars and lectures were held in the evening. There were only two departments: popular scientific (which corresponded to a common gymnasium course) and academic (with a university-level curriculum). The building is currently occupied by the Russian State University for the HumanitiesRussian: Rossiyskiy gosudarstvennyiy gumanitarnyiy universitet or Российский государственный гуманитарный университет (6 Miusskaya Square).

The famous Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855) lived in Moscow from December 1825 until the end of 1827. During those years, he developed a good rapport with a number of Russian writers and poets. His historical meeting with Alexander Pushkin in 1829 took place in the England Hotel (6 Glinishchevsky LaneRussian: Glinishchevskiy pereulok or Глинищевский переулок). A memorial tablet can be seen on the façade of the building where the two prominent poets met. Pushkin dedicated the following lines to Mickiewicz: “He was inspired from above and from above he contemplated life”. There is also a famous poem Pushkin dedicated to Mickiewicz in 1834 titled: “He lived in our midst…” Pushkin respected Mickiewicz above all others.

Mural art m WarsawMany Russian and Soviet officials  were of Polish origin. A number of arterial roads in the city were named after Polish descendants in Soviet times: Stankevich, Tukhachevsky, Shokalsky, Markhlevsky, Przhevalsky StreetsRussian: ulitsy Stankevicha, Tukhachevskogo, Shokal’skogo, Markhlevskogo, Przheval’skogo or улицы Станкевича, Тухачевского, Шокальского, Мархлевского, Пржевальского, Rokossovsky boulevardRussian: bul’var Rokossovskogo or бульвар Рокоссовского. Prominent Bolsheviks Vyacheslav Menzhinsky (Wacław Menżyński), Felix Dzerzhinsky, and Red Army soldier Jan Waldowski were buried in Red Square by the Kremlin wall. Representatives of the world of art whose ancestors originated in Poland are also well-known in Moscow: painter Mikhail Vrubel (an entire hall in the Tretyakov Gallery is dedicated to his paintings), architect Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky (the first chief architect of the VDNKhExhibition of Achievements of National Economy; Russian: VDNKh or ВДНХ), and many others.

One of the main Moscow motorways is called Varshavskoe MotorwayRussian: Varshavskoe shosse or Варшавское шоссе; Варшава means Warsaw in Russian. Although it runs straight south, historically it is part of the Moscow–Warsaw motorway via Podolsk built in the 1840s. The VarshavskayaRussian: Варшавская metro station located on Varshavskoe Motorway has been in operation since 1969. Its walls are decorated with wrought iron images of Warsaw.


Посольство ПольшиThe Polish Charity Community has been aiming to help Catholics exist in Moscow for a few decades. Founded in the 1830s, it was given the name ‘Polish HouseRussian: Dom pol’sky or Дом польский’ in 1906. In Soviet times, Polish Catholic organizations were replaced by social institutions that were supposed to indoctrinate the “right values” into ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union. It was only in 1989 that the Polish House was brought back to life, and in the year 1992 it witnessed the establishment of the Congress of Poles in Russia, a separate national and cultural entity. It unites all the regional Polish organisations and promotes their interests in Russia and internationally.
A new building of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland (4 Klimashkina StRussian: ulitsa Klimashkina or улица Климашкина) was built in the 1970s in the PresnyaRussian: Пресня area (KrasnopresnenskayaRussian: Краснопресненская and BarrikadnayaRussian: Баррикадная metro stations). The Polish Cultural Centre was founded in 1988 in the same building. It engages in a lot of awareness-raising activities, not only in terms of promoting and spreading the Polish culture, but also in the field of education. Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi, Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Penderecki, Adam Michnik, and many other famous Poles have visited the Centre.

© 2016-2023
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