Like many of Moscow's central streets, Bolshaya Nikitskaya takes its name from the most important religious institution that once stood on it - in this case the Nikitskiy Monastery, founded by the grandfather of Mikhail I, the first Romanov Tsar, which once stood at no. 7. This explains why the street was renamed in Soviet times in honour of Alexander Herzen, the 'grandfather of Russian socialism'. The monastery was destroyed, to be replaced by an electricity substation for the metro.
The street runs from the far end of Manezhnaya Ploshad', between two buildings of Moscow State University. The first building of interest on Bolshaya Nikolskaya itself is No. 5, which was built in the 1780's by Matvei Kazakov, one of Moscow's foremost neoclassical architects, for Count Vladimir Orlov, a relative of Catherine the Great's famous advisor and lover, Grigory. One of the Count's serfs, Aleksander Gurilev, became a celebrated composer of Russian romances, including famous settings of Lermontov's poems. The house was later owned by a number of notable noble families, including the Panins and the Sheremetevs, and fittingly became the home of the history faculty of Moscow State University in the 1930's. The faculty moved to the Sparrow Hills in 1970, and the building has since housed the Moscow State University Press.
At the corner of Bryusov Pereulok stands the former home of Yakov Bryus, whose name is evidence of his Scotch ancestry. Bryus was simultaneously the Governor of both Moscow and St. Petersburg under Catherine the Great, although he showed no more particular ability in his civil career than he had as a mediocre military commander. His high rank is often attributed to his wife's close friendship with Catherine. He left more of a mark on Petersburg, where he commissioned a number of important building projects. However, the lane named after him does have one treasure, the charming red-and-white Church of the Resurrection. Built in 1634, the church was one of the few in Moscow to remain open under communism, and to have retained its original interiors.
Perhaps the most famous building on the street is the Moscow Conservatory, inextricably linked with Tchaikovsky and his music - the large statue of him outside was erected there in 1954 by the great Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina. The building the Conservatory occupies was originally the mansion of Princess Yekaterina Dashkova, a close friend of Catherine the Great whose remarkable scholarship and dynamism made her a pivotal figure of the Russian Enlightenment. She studied at the Moscow University, played a key role in the coup that placed Catherine on the imperial throne (at least, according to her own account), traveled extensively in Europe, where she conversed with Voltaire, Diderot and Benjamin Franklin, and returned to Russia to become director of the Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy. She was instrumental in the compilation and publication of the first Russian dictionary, and also herself authored at least two plays and two volumes of memoirs, published in London in 1840.
The Conservatory grew from the Russian Music Society, founded in 1860 by the great muscovite pianist and composer, Nikolai Rubinshtein. The St. Petersburg Conservatory was opened two years later and Tchaikovsky, one of its first graduates, came straight to Moscow to help establish the Society's school in 1866. Originally housed on nearby Ulitsa Vozdvizhenka, the school, now called the Moscow Conservatory, was soon obliged to move to larger premises here.
A little further up the street on the same side (at no. 19) stands another building with an illustrious cultural history: The Mayakovsky Theatre. Originally called The International, it was established by the actor and impresario Georg Paradiz in 1885. The 18th Century mansion belonged to the Princes Streshnev, and Paradiz rented it as a home for his operetta company. Later, he has the theatre rebuilt and sublet it to various other promoters, who brought international stars such as Sarah Bernhardt and Ernesto Rossi to tread its boards. After the Revolution, it became home to Meyerhold's Theatre of the Revolution.
The building opposite also has theatrical connections. Built in the late 18th Century for Major-General Pozdnyakov, it was later bought by Prince Nikolai Yusupov. The biggest landowner in Russia, Yusupov was famous for his patronage of the arts and his decadent lifestyle. His estate at Arkhangelskoe housed one of the finest art collections in Europe, as well as a harem of the most beautiful serfs. Both Pozdnyakov and Yusupov were theatre enthusiasts, and organized serf theatres in this house. Yusupov was also a long-standing acquaintance of Pushkin, and the poet is known to have visited him here shortly before his death.
Connections with Pushkin continue as Bolshaya Nikitskaya meets the Boulevard Ring at Nikitskie Vorota (St. Nicholas' Gates). The medieval gates were removed under Stalin, but the square is dominated by the neoclassical Church of the Great Ascension, which was the site of Pushkin's marriage to the beautiful but treacherous Natalia Gonchareva on 18 February 1831. A stone church was first built on this site in the 17th Century at the behest of Peter the Great's mother, Tsarina Natalia. A hundred years later, work began on a new, larger church on the orders of Prince Potemkin-Tavrichesky, a favourite of Catherine the Great and the commander of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, for whom the church was to be their personal place of worship. The building took almost half a century to complete, and occupied a string of architects including the great Matvei Kazakov. Thanks to its Pushkin connections, the church survived after the Revolution, but was eventually closed in 1931, and only returned to the Orthodox Church in 1992.
Behind the church, on Malaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa, stands the Gorkiy House Museum, in a beautiful Art Nouveau mansion designed by the hugely popular architect Fyodor Shekhtel for Stepan Ryabushinksy. While the museum itself is very staid, the house's glorious interiors have to be seen, especially as it is about the only opportunity to take a closer look at an example of the 'moderne' style, pioneered by Shekhtel amongst others, that became fashionable among Moscow's cultured bourgeoisie in the decades prior to the Revolution.