The heart of the district known as Zaryade, which was once the dwelling place of the artisans who sold their wares on Red Square, Ulitsa Varvarka holds a claim to being the oldest street in Moscow. Although short, it also boasts the most churches of any street in the city, and has some fascinating if lesser known sights that beautifully evoke the more personal side of life in medieval Moscow. In the Soviet era it was named after Stepan Razin, the Cossack rebel hero who was led along it to his execution in 1671, and before that, in 1380, it was the road down which a victorious Dmitry Donskoy paraded after defeating the Mongol Horde at the Battle of Kulikovo Field.
The street is dominated by the Rossia Hotel (Varvarka, 6), a monumental glass and concrete block with 3,200 rooms that was built in the late sixties and is now (over)due for demolition - although for guests it provides the best views in the city. The erection of what was then the largest hotel in the world necessitated the destruction of most of the Zaryade region, including a number of ancient churches, and the rest of the street survives as a taste of what the whole are stretching down to the banks of the river must once have looked like.
Ulitsa Varvarka takes its name from the neoclassical Church of St. Barabara, which stands on the right at the start of the street if you are walking from Red Square. St. Barbara, who was purportedly killed by her father for her Christian beliefs somewhere in Asia Minor around the beginning of the fourth century, was traditionally considered in Moscow to be the patron saint of merchants, and it was originally merchants from the south who lived in the area and ordered the building of the church.
Next to the church is the English Court, also known as the Old English Embassy (Varvarka, 4), one of the oldest secular buildings in Moscow. Originally a palace built for the wealthy merchant Bobrishchev at the turn of the 16th Century, it was soon after taken by Ivan the Terrible and presented to the Muscovy Company, a delegation of English merchants who arrived in Murmansk in 1553 under the command of Richard Chanellor, aiming to get a share of the lucrative fur trade. Despite the initial welcome, the third English envoy to Ivan's court found himself under house arrest when the increasingly mad Tsar's efforts to win Elizabeth I's hand in marriage were repeatedly rebuffed. Less than a century later, when Charles I was defeated by Oliver Cromwell's troops and executed, Tsar Aleksei expelled the English traders in disgust. Restored to its original design during the building of the Rossia in the sixties, the English Court was opened as a museum to coincide with Elizabeth II's state visit in 1994.
Sharing the same address as the English Court, the Church of St. Maksim (Varvarka, 4a) is an unassuming 17th Century structure, built with merchants' funds, that takes its name from a celebrated holy fool who was buried in the original wooden church on the same site. The church's bell tower is famous in Moscow for being visibly off-center, the city's 'leaning tower'.
On the other side of the road, at Varvarka, 3, stretches the southern facade of the Stary Gostiny Dvor, an elegant late baroque trading arcade designed by Giacomo Quarenghi to replace the muddle of stalls and warehouses that had stood on the site for hundreds of years. The building was begun in 1791, and completed forty years later. Originally, the building was used for wholesale trade by merchants from out of town, who lived in the building and stored the goods they had brought to sell there (hence the name 'gostiny dvor', which translates roughly as 'guests' court'). The building, which had become shabby and structurally unsound by the end of the Soviet era, underwent major restoration/reconstruction over the last decade, and the Gostiny Dvor has now reopened as a luxury mall and exhibition centre, housing amongst other things the Barkhat Casino. During renovation work, a wealth of archaeological finds was dug up beneath the building's foundations, and is now on permanent display in the exhibition centre inside.
The next section of the street, beneath the walls of the Rossia, is inextricably linked with the Romanov family, Russia's rulers for three centuries. Before Mikhail I was elected Tsar by the Boyars' Assembly in 1613, the family had long been prominent Moscow aristocrats, and this area of Zaryade was their domain. After the family moved into the Kremlin, the area was given over to the Znamensky Monastery. The first building you come to is the monastery's red-and-white bell tower, added in the 18th century, which is now separated from the rest of the monastery by the Rossia's elevated ramp. The monastic quarters (Varvarka, 8), which stand by the monastery's main entrance, date from the 1670s, and are now used as a shop selling Orthodox icons and related souvenirs. The centre of the complex is the Palace of the Romanov Boyars (Varvarka, 10), built at the turn of the 16th Century by Mikhail's grandfather, Nikita Romanov Zakharyin-Yuryev. It now houses a museum showing the lifestyle of Moscow's medieval nobility.
The monastery's name, which translates as the Monastery of the Sign, refers to a famous icon, The Sign of the Sacred Virgin, painted in Novgorod in the early 16th Century, which had become a sort of spiritual heirloom for the Romanov family. The monastery also became the home of the first printed bible in Moscow. The Cathedral of the Sign, a large brown-brick church topped with four green domes around a central circular one, was erected in 1684, although it bears a strong resemblance to the earlier cathedrals in the Kremlin.
Across the other side of the Rossia ramp stands the Church of St. George, which dates from 1657, and was also built with contributions from wealthy merchants. This pretty church with its slender towers and spangled cupolas is typical of the period. The pale green bell tower was added in 1818. The church now houses another shop selling icons and Orthodox souvenirs.