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Around Moscow, the country rolls gently up from the rivers winding in silvery loops across the pleasant landscape. Small lakes and patches of woods are sprinkled among the meadowlands. Here and there, a village appears, topped by the onion dome of its church. People are walking through the fields on dirt paths lined with weeds. Along the riverbanks, they are fishing, swimming and lying in the sun. It is a familiar Russian scene, rooted in centuries.
In the third quarter of the seventeenth century, the traveler coming from Western Europe passed through this countryside to arrive at a vantage point known as the Sparrow Hills. Looking down on Moscow from this high ridge, he saw at his feet “the most rich and beautiful city in the world.” Hundreds of golden domes topped by a forest of golden crosses rose above the treetops; if the traveler was present at a moment when the sun touched all this gold, the blaze of light forced his eyes to close. The white-walled churches beneath these domes were scattered through a city as large as London. At the center, on a modest hill, stood the citadel of the Kremlin, the glory of Moscow, with its three magnificent cathedrals, its mighty bell tower, its gorgeous palaces, chapels and hundreds of houses. Enclosed by great white walls, it was a city in itself.
In summer, immersed in greenery, the city seemed like an enormous garden. Many of the larger mansions were surrounded by orchards and parks, while swaths of open space left as firebreaks burst out with grasses, bushes and trees. Overflowing its own walls, the city expanded into numerous flourishing suburbs, each with its own orchards, gardens and copses of trees. Beyond, in a wide circle around the city, the manors and estates of great nobles and the white walls and gilded cupolas of monasteries were scattered among meadows and tilled fields to stretch the landscape out to the horizon.
Entering Moscow through its walls of earth and brick, the traveler plunged immediately into the bustling life of a busy commercial city. The streets were crowded with jostling humanity. Tradespeople, artisans, idlers and ragged holy men walked beside laborers, peasants, black-robed priests and soldiers in bright-colored caftans and yellow boots. Carts and wagons struggled to make headway through this river of people, but the crowds parted for a fat-bellied, bearded boyar, or nobleman, on horseback, his head covered with a fine fur cap and his girth with a rich fur-lined coat of velvet or stiff brocade. At street corners, musicians, jugglers, acrobats and animal handlers with bears and dogs performed their tricks. Outside every church, beggars clustered and wailed for alms. In front of taverns, travelers were sometimes astonished to see naked men who had sold every stitch of clothing for a drink; on feast days, other men, naked and clothed alike, lay in rows in the mud, drunk.
The densest crowds gathered in the commercial districts centered on Red Square. The Red Square of the seventeenth century was very different from the silent, cobbled desert we know today beneath the fantastic, clustered steeples and cupolas of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the high Kremlin walls. Then it was a brawling, open-air marketplace, with logs laid down to cover the mud, with lines of log houses and small chapels built against the Kremlin wall where Lenin’s tomb now stands, and with rows and rows of shops and stalls, some wood, some covered by tent-like canvas, crammed into every corner of the vast arena. Three hundred years ago, Red Square teemed, swirled and reverberated with life. Merchants standing in front of stalls shouted to customers to step up and inspect their wares. They offered velvet and brocade, Persian and Armenian silk, bronze, brass and copper goods, iron wares, tooled leather, pottery, innumerable objects made of wood, and rows of melons, apples, pears, cherries, plums, carrots, cucumbers, onions, garlic and asparagus as thick as a thumb, laid out in trays and baskets. Peddlers and pushcart men forced their way through the crowds with a combination of threats and pleas. Vendors sold pirozhki (small meat pies) from trays suspended by cords from their shoulders. Tailors and street jewelers, oblivious to all around them, worked at their trades. Barbers clipped hair, which fell to the ground unswept, adding a new layer to a matted carpet decades in the forming. Flea markets offered old clothes, rags, used furniture and junk. Down the hill, nearer the Moscow River, animals were sold, and live fish from tanks. On the riverbank itself, near the new stone bridge, rows of women bent over the water washing clothes. One seventeenth-century German traveler noted that some of the women selling goods in the square might also sell “another commodity.”
At noon, all activity came to a halt. The markets would close and the streets empty as people ate dinner, the largest meal of the day. Afterward, everyone napped and shopkeepers and vendors stretched out to sleep in front of their stalls.
With the coming of dusk, swallows began to soar over the Kremlin battlements and the city locked itself up for the night. Shops closed behind heavy shutters, watchmen looked down from the rooftops and bad-tempered dogs paced at the end of long chains. Few honest citizens ventured into the dark streets, which became the habitat of thieves and armed beggars bent on extracting by force in the dark what they had failed to get by pleading during the daylight hours. “These villains,” wrote an Austrian visitor, “place themselves at the corners of streets and throw swinging cudgels at the heads of those that pass by, in which practice they are so expert that these mortal blows seldom miss.” Several murders a night were common in Moscow, and although the motive for these crimes was seldom more than simple theft, so vicious were the thieves that no one dared respond to cries for help. Often, terrorized citizens were afraid even to look out their own doors or windows to see what was happening. In the morning, the police routinely carried the bodies found lying in the streets to a central field where relatives could come to check for missing persons; eventually, all unidentified corpses were tumbled into a common grave.
Moscow in the 1670’s was a city of wood. The houses, mansions and hovels alike, were built of logs, but their unique architecture and the superb carved and painted decoration of their windows, porches and gables gave them a strange beauty unknown to the stolid masonry of European cities. Even the streets were made of wood. Lined with rough timbers and wooden planks, thick with dust in summer or sinking into the mud during spring thaws and September rains, the wood-paved streets of Moscow attempted to provide footing for passage. Often, they failed. “The autumnal rains made the streets impassable for wagons and horses,” complained an Orthodox churchman visiting from the Holy Land. “We could not go out of the house to market, the mud and clay being deep enough to sink in overhead. The price of food rose very high, as none could be brought in from the country. All the people, and most of all ourselves, prayed to God that He would cause the earth to freeze.”
Not unnaturally in a city built of wood, fire was the scourge of Moscow. In winter when primitive stoves were blazing in every house, and in summer when the heat made wood tinder-dry, a spark could create a holocaust. Caught by the wind, flames leaped from one roof to the next, reducing entire streets to ashes. In 1571, 1611, 1626 and 1671, great fires destroyed whole quarters of Moscow, leaving vast empty spaces in the middle of the city. These disasters were exceptional, but to Muscovites the sight of a burning house with firemen struggling to localize the fire by hastily tearing down other buildings in its path was a part of daily life.
As Moscow was built of logs, Muscovites always kept spares on hand for repairs or new construction. Logs by the thousand were piled up between houses or sometimes hidden behind them or surrounded by fences as protection from thieves. In one section, a large wood market kept thousands of prefabricated log houses of various sizes ready for sale; a buyer had only to specify the size and number of rooms desired. Almost overnight, the timbers, all clearly numbered and marked, would be carried to his site, assembled, the logs chinked with moss, a roof of thin planks laid on top and the new owner could move in. The largest logs, however, were saved and sold for a different purpose. Cut into six-foot sections, hollowed out with an axe and covered with lids, they became the coffins in which Russians were buried.