From revolutionaries to mobsters: the image of Moscow in 20th century films

The Moscow of 20th century film changed more rapidly than the real Moscow. Over the years, directors not only depicted changes in the streets of the city but also interpreted them in different ways. That’s how Moscow went from a bourgeois city to an exemplary Soviet capital and later became a gloomy but at the same time glamorous city. Tour guide and author of city movie blog Tatyana Vorontsova talks about what we should pay attention to when watching a movie about Moscow.



This film was shot in the spring of 1917 between two revolutions. The plot was very significant for that time: a revolutionary released from a labor camp comes back home and meets his Bolshevik son. The father impresses on his son the depravity of Bolshevism. Together they go to the front as volunteers.

The Revolutionary is one of the first cases of Russian cinema addressing the present. Previously, movies had been mostly historical or served as reinterpretations of literature. However, the pre-revolutionary fever reached such a degree at the beginning of 1917 that it would have been strange not to reflect it on the screen.


The shop-window of the bakery on Kaluzhskaya square is decorated with a sign in French "Boulangerie Wesseloff." There were many foreign commercial establishments in pre-revolutionary Moscow, and such signs were normal because most people of the higher classes knew foreign languages.


A revolutionary who has returned from exile goes for a walk with his son. They walk in the Kremlin’s Upper Garden. The Kremlin was not a museum space until the beginning of the 1930s: people used to live there. If you look at the photographs from the late 19th, early 20th centuries, you may see kids, playing the ball on Cathedral Square, and laundry on the clothesline.

The view on the Cathedral of Christ the Savior — one of the main landmarks of that time — unfolds from the square in the Upper Garden. The cathedral was demolished 14 years later. You can also see Bolshoy Kamenny Bridge in its old location. It used to abut the edge of Lenivka street, it was closer to the cathedral. The bridge we know now was built in 1938 and it adopted the old name.


There had been no public transport in the city till 1872. There were coachmen, who worked both as the taxi and the private carriage drivers. Ordinary persons usually preferred walking. In 1842 Kokorev offered to build a horse-drawn tram in Moscow. However, the Moscow Duma decided that the construction of a horse tramway network would enrich Kokorev more than it would help the city. So they forgot about it for 30 more years. Only in 1872, when the Polytechnic exhibition was held in Moscow, it became clear that people needed to be transported. There were already more than 600,000 people living in Moscow at that time. In the capital, Saint Petersburg, there were only 60,000 more, and the horse trams were already implemented. The metro was already being built in Europe, whereas we still used the coachmen.

The first horse tramway park was established on Miusskaya Square. The carriages, brought from England, traveled across Tverskaya Zastava to Red Square. During the next few years, several new lines appeared, and they were not a state property. Every tram depot had its owner.

The owners of the first park in the end of the 19th century conducted an experiment, they shifted one line to electric power. The profit nearly tripled. Slowly, all the trams became electric. However, some of the owners of the horse trams did not agree to build substations and remained on the horsepower. And the routes were still the same! Chekhov used to recall, how his friends travelled to his place on Sadovo-Spasskaya street: the horses were barely going up the Sadovo-Samotechnaya with a heavy carriage, while four electric trams were trudging behind. No way to outrun them.


The 1928 film shows the life of Moscow citizens during the ending of the NEP (New Economic Policy). The petty-bourgeois people try to organise their life in a house on Trubnaya street. One of the residents is looking for a housekeeper, who is not a member of the labour union. A village girl Parasha seems like a suitable candidate. Soon the house on Trubnaya is shocked by the announcement that Praskovya was elected as Deputy of Moscow City Council from the Union of Maids.

The director, Boris Barnet, lovingly depicts Moscow that was about to change: large boulevards were to replace narrow streets, little houses were to give way to Stalinist high-rises, and quarters of revenue houses were to turn into spacious squares.


The scenery was built on Mezhrabpom-Rus studio to show the petty-bourgeois lifestyle in the house on Trubnaya. The stairs are the crucial part. It is there, not in their own apartments, where the residents spend most of their time: argue and fall in love, chop wood and get dressed.

Moscow was facing a communal crisis at that time. The city became overpopulated. The last population census before the revolution was conducted in 1915. It counted 1,817,000 citizens. The first census after the revolution in 1924-1925 pen out of 4,5 million. The issue was resolved with compression. Plywood panels were used to divide big apartments into small rooms. The first square meter of a Soviet housing was built only in 1923. Naturally, all the activities used to take place on the stairs, in the yard, in the street.

Surely, a livestock in the yard was not normal for Moscow. The pre-revolutionary writer Pyotr Boborykin once described his morning walk to the church somewhere in the Arbat, where he saw two cows on a leash, gnawing at the bark of the birch. It seemed wild to him. Although, the War Communism, during which all food was rationed, ended in the 1920s. If there’s some small shed in the yard, why wouldn’t a chicken be put there? And if there is a storeroom, a piglet should also be there. The house manager was like a king or God at that time. If he was kind enough, he would allow residents these sorts of things.


Basically, it was the housing crisis of the 1920s that caused the uprise of public spaces. The single program of the clubs’ construction was accepted in 1927. Clubhouses were set in every factory and every party cell of the area. So many of those buildings were needed that there were no architectural contests. Due to that, there are still many outstanding representations of avant-garde left today: Rusakov’s Workers’ Club, Kauchuk Factory Club, Svoboda Factory Club, Zuev Workers’ Club.

The house on Trubnaya’s inner yard with shared balconies was shot on Malaya Polyanka street. The building still stands, although, the balconies were removed. Cheap revenue houses used to be arranged that way quite often before the revolution. The balconies allowed the builder to save money that he would spend on constructing warm halls.

"The House on Trubnaya" is one of the last movies, where you can see The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Red Gate, the wall of Kitay-gorod. For example, an apartment house on Manezhnaya Square is shown in this episode after the Sukharev Tower and the State Historical Museum. That square was cleared only in 1937.


The word «otramvaivatsya» («to tram yourself» — translator’s note) was very popular on the edge between the 1920s and 1930s. Moscow was the one to «otramvaivatsya». New routes appeared almost every week. Although, they also vanished as quickly because they wouldn’t pay off. There hadn’t been metro yet — it appeared only in 1935. The minister of foreign trade Krasin bought 50 buses in England in 1925. But what is 50 cars for 4,8 million Moscow citizens? So, the tram remained the main city transport.

Peter the Great was the first one to suggest the first Traffic Rules. But it wasn’t until the beginning of the 1930s that the strict regulations were developed. If you watch a newsreel of the 1920s, you may notice that Moscow looks like the anthill city that moves chaotically. The roadway in the 19th century is cobbled with sett and the roadside is just a roadside with trodden dirt. The width and the look of walkways were regulated with the General plan of the reconstruction of the city of Moscow in 1935, when the practice of drawing the highways began.


One of the first Soviet family movies. In the script by Agniya Barto and Rina Zelyonaya, a girl called Natasha, got lost, so she’s walking in Moscow. The movie shows, what had been destroyed and built by that time, according to the General plan of the city’s reconstruction.


Moscow is an illustrative capital of the first socialist country ever. Clean cars are going along the streets, girls with bows are walking, boys wear knee socks, and the adults mostly wear white.

Street soda has existed in the city for a long time in one form or another. Later, it started being sold in soda machines and kiosks. It was called Pepsi Cola and Fanta after the Olympics (1980).


Surely, if the genplan had been realized fully, Moscow would have been a completely different city. In fact, the plan was partly revived a few times afterwards. For example, the project of the New Arbat, which was built in the 1960s, was published in that plan. Sakharov Avenue appeared in the 1970s. So did Olympiyskiy Avenue, built for the Olympics-80.

Tverskaya Street had been 16-18 meters wide until 1938. It was reconstructed into the highway so that some segments of what is now known as Gorky Street became 40-56 meter wide. Old constructions were replaced with Stalin’s high rises. In «The Foundling» they were just opened for residents. You can notice, how the plywood panels cover the showcases of future shops.

The VDNKh or, as it was called previously, the VSKhV — Vsesoyuznaya Selsko-Knozyaystvennaya Vystavka (All-Union Agricultural Exhibition) — was shown in almost every movie at that time. In was opened in 1939 and became the main public space in Moscow. Also, Meschanskaya street changed its name to Mira Avenue and became an illustrative highway, leading to the exhibition.


Since the appearance of the wide avenues, the traffic started being more organized. Masses of people started walking less chaotically. Someone even wrote that in the middle of the 1930s the idea of regulating pedestrian traffic came up, meaning that people, going from the center towards the Moscow oblast (border districts), would have had to walk on the right ride, and those, going the other way — on the left side.

Natasha gets help crossing Tverskaya street — naturally, on the ground. The first underground crossing was built in 1935, but it led to the metro station. One could get to «Smolenskaya» station through it from both sides of the Garden Ring. Smolenskaya’s vestibule was situated on the central axis of the Garden Ring. The first underground crossings that did not lead to a metro station appeared in 1961. It was such a significant event that the New Year issue of Krokodil Magazine was published in 1961, featuring a drawing of a boy in a hat, who was coming down into the underground crossing with skis, on the cover.

You can see a double-decker bus in the background. These buses used to go around Moscow from 1939 to 1953. One of these cars was bought in England, and ten more were assembled in Yaroslavl, based on the original. The route started at the point where modern underground station «Dinamo» is located now, leading to the Kremlin along Tverskaya street. But in reality, they turned out to be quite inconvenient in Moscow, especially in the winter, because of the intense swinging while driving along the slippery road.

The transport navigation used to change quite often in Soviet days. Every decade probably had its own signage. By the way, the bus station returned to its old place after the implementation of «Magistral» route scheme in the summer of 2016.

The road traffic on Manezhnaya square had been the same till 1992. There even were trams, going along the side of the road. But in 1992 the project of the mall emerged, so the square was to become pedestrian.


The 1940s weren’t exactly a good time to make movies. The capital was depicted as an illustrative city both in the 1950s and 1930s. However, in the 1960s the directors, including Marlen Khutsiev, who made a film about mutual understanding of the generations, leave wide avenues for cozy Moscow: boulevards, alleyways, yards. That caused the displeasure of Furtseva, the minister of culture, who lectured the directors of the Khrushchev Thaw from her high pedestal: "Why are your characters running along center’s narrow dirty lanes? Moscow has so many wide avenues and squares!"


The Khruschev thaw was probably the most pleasurable Soviet period, social-wise. Now it’s only in the movies that you can see a milkwoman, delivering bottled milk to the apartments in the outskirts of Patriarshiye Ponds. Although, the milkwomen mostly used the cans.

The green grocery in the alley is another feature of the period. Later the trade became more organized and expanded. The vegetables were sold in the vegetable shop or at least at the market. And that’s just a local stall next to the arch of the house. There were plenty of those all around Moscow. You can see the ice cream ad on the house to the left. Oddly enough, the city was overloaded with advertisements in the 1960s-1980s. It was state advertising, but there were many: political, sports banners, "cross the street on the green light" or the products of the domestic food industry.

The chemical industry was on the rise during Khrushchev period, the new materials were trending: nylon, cellophane. Here’s a trendy Moscow girl in cellophane cloak with polka dots.

Dancing to the radiograms and the reel-to-reel tape recorders in the yards was a common thing. A similar scene takes place in Walking the Streets of Moscow film that came out just a few months before Ilyich’s Gate.

A big line emerged in front of the newsstand on Bolshaya Gruzinskaya Street. Morning paper is the main source of information. Not much people had television, while the printed press used to be sold like hotcakes.

Soda is shown once again, this time — in soda machines. There were many of those. There had also been sandwiches, pastry, and hotcakes in those machines till the end of the 1980s.

The readings of young poets gathered an enormous audience. The first one was organized in 1958 at the opening of the monument of Mayakovsky. Everyone loved it so much that the readings on the square were repeated many times. Later they moved to the Polytechnic Museum, where they were extremely popular. By the way, the twenty-minute long scene with the reading was shown in the movie due to the suggestion of the same minister of culture, Furtseva.


Ilyich’s Gate opens with the shots of the revolutionary patrol, walking along the pavement. In the period of the shooting, you could still see that kind of road surface, especially in the parts, where the tramways were laid. What we have in front of us is Durov Street with some old construction on the right side. It was swept away during the construction of Olympic Stadium at the end of the 1970s.

In the end of the movie, the soldiers of Red Army leave the newly built tunnel on Mayakovsky square. The high rise on Vosstaniya square can be seen far away on the background. All of the Seven Sisters had already been built by that moment. There must have been eight of them because Moscow celebrated the 800th anniversary in 1947 — when the decision to build them was made.

The eighth high rise was established in Zaryadye. Its foundation is shown in the movie. Why wasn’t it built? There’s a story. When the carcass had beed pulled to the fifth floor, the builders suddenly realized that if they create a planned 34-story building, it would have a great viewpoint to strafe the Kremlin. The more believable version is the following: when the construction began, Chechulin, the architect (author of Kotelnicheskaya Embankment high rise project) couldn’t say for sure, whether the building would eventually slide into the Moscow river or not. The project was frozen and Dmitry Chichulin had been working on its altering for ten years, in order to create Rossiya Hotel on that foundation.

The 1960s was a new construction boom in Moscow. A lot of tunnels and flyovers were built in the city in that period, the New Arbat was established, so there’s no point in even mentioning residential construction. The demolition of the building on Zemlyanoy Val street (Chkalov street) is shown here — that was the segment, where the Garden Ring was being expanded to its current size.

One of the symbols of Soviet Moscow. The Tsentrosoyuz Building on Kirov street (Myasnitskaya nowadays). It’s an office building, established in the 1930s in the city center and based on the project of the famous architect, Le Corbusier. The monument of the architect was set in front of the building in 2015.


One of the characters encounters a girl, the tram’s conductor, several times in the film. You can see, how she pushes the button during one of their rides. That’s an atavism, left from the pre-revolutionary times. Although, at that time, there was a cord with a bell that was stretched right to the driver from the back of the tram instead of a button. It was used by the conductor to announce that everyone got on the bus and the doors can be closed.

By the end of the movie, the character meets a change box instead of the girl. That is quite a novelty for that time — public transport without the conductor. There was a box in the salon, the passenger would put 3 kopeks in it (4 in a trolley-bus and 5 in a bus) and tear off the ticket. That trust system had been working till the 1990s.

Aside from the traditional "Don’t lean" sign, there was also the "Don’t block the entrance and exit" sign on the doors of metro trains. The metropolitan was built for the city with the population of 7 million people. The bandwidth of the escalators, the length and the intervals between coming trains — all that was counted with that amount in mind. The passenger flow increased enormously in the 1990s, so the reminder not to stand in the walkway lost all possible sense. The carriages were full of people in the late Soviet period as well, but there still were no human traffic jams then.

Another interesting moment — the selling of lottery tickets on Kurskaya station. Nothing like that was happening in Moscow in the 1970s, but there were Soyuzpechat kiosks on metro stations in Leningrad.

And there’s the transport navigation again — the pedestrian crossing signs. Also, there’s a four-section traffic light on the corner of Volkhonka street and Lenivka street. It had two vertical green signals. Two simultaneously working green lights meant that the drivers were allowed to go in any direction. The traffic rules back then were quite different from the current ones.


"There are too many people in our city. Too many visitors, and too many cars. And all are rushing somewhere, all are late for something. There are crowds everywhere, standing in long lines. But anyway, I love this city. This is my city. It is a very good city." That’s the beginning of one of the most popular Soviet movies about the relationship between 37 years old recently divorced man and his boss. Pre-perestroika Moscow is depicted in the film. A very lively city during the period of horrible stagnation.


There was no more public life on the street or on the staircase in the 1970s. Moreover, the scriptwriters Braginsky and Ryazanov were very thorough, placing the characters according to their social status.

Comrade Kalugina, the head of the statistics office, is on friendly terms with the Minister, she lives on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. A noble departmental house with spacious apartments. Since it was the 1970s, there were already a concierge and high-speed elevators in the house.

Deputy director Samokhvalov is a dandy, who just returned from abroad. He lives on the very Tverskaya — Gorky street, building 9. It is a very high-status house. He also has another attribute, showing his status — a car.

We meet the main character, Novoseltsev. The porch, his boy and another boy run out of, is on Chernishevskogo lane in the area of current Dostoevskaya station. It’s also considered the center now, but for 1977 it was a simple area in Moscow, not prestigious at all.

The secretary of the head of the statistics department lives in Chertanovo. It is in the 1970s, when commuter areas started to appear, closer to MKAD. So Chertanovo was an example of illustrative constructions. The houses in the experimental series were being built there, the quarters were being constructed along with the infrastructure: kindergartens, schools, hair salons, shops. So Chertanovo was not that bad.

Olen’ka Ryzhova is a common worker. She goes to work from the outside of the city. The housing issue was almost unsolvable for an ordinary person in the capital till the very 1970s. Some people made their sacrifices and left their rooms in the center of the closest possible town in the suburb.

Ryzhova manages to buy a goose. Everyone used to run from one shop to another during lunch break to get something. That’s the time when the deficits began. In the capital, it definitely wasn’t as harsh as in the provincial towns, but these issues still used to emerge.


The snow on the trees with leaves, shown in the movie, fell in Moscow on the 18th of September 1976. That scene wasn’t planned from the beginning, but the director decided not to neglect such a beautiful whim of nature, so he extended the film by three and a half minutes. The old vestibule of Vorobyovy Gory metro station is also shown here.

The police kiosks are also interesting. They disappeared in the beginning of 2000, but a few of them were set in the center in the fall of 2016.

All the insides of the statistics department were nothing but Mosfilm film set. The outer parts were represented by two houses. The facade of the department is located on the corner of Kuznetsky Most and Petrovka street. Now that is the building of the Federal Agency for Maritime and River Transport. The house has barely changed since the time Office Romance was made, aside from the replacement of the lanterns’ plafonds.

The department’s roof, where comrade Kalugina waters her flowers, is the roof of the Nirnsee house, which is located on Bolshoy Gnezdovsky lane. The house, built in the beginning of the 20th century, had been the highest in the capital till 1925. The directors fancied the flat roof. During different periods there were a film set and a restaurant with a cinema, while the inside of the house was occupied by the Association of revolutionary cinema (ARC), created by Sergey Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov.


The cars drive along the Samotechnaya flyover. The amount of transport in the city radically increased. There was about 60 percent of passenger cars and 40 percent of cargo vehicles. First, a personal car was still a very luxurious object. Second, the city was open for trucks in the 1970s. Now they stay on MKAD, while the pickup trucks that require a lot of permits took over the delivery services for the shops and cafés.

BROTHER-2 (2000)

The "good" city was mostly depicted in the 1970s-1980s movies. There were exceptions, but the Soviet cinema usually would just stick to the trend of showing grand Moscow. Quite a long period of time had passed since the fall of the USSR till the shooting of «Brother», so the director showed what he wanted.


The film was shot in the end of the 1990s, but it depicts the atmosphere of the beginning of the decade quite accurately. Local formations of gangs, crimson jackets, and luxurious entertainment. Moscow during the mayor Gavriil Popov’s timeless reign is very well represented, even though the shooting took place after Luzhkov had become the mayor. Naturally, the 90s are a hyperbole here. Hardly anyone could shoot and throw grenades in the yards with no consequences, but there were definitely some shootings in my yard.

Gorbushka is a real symbol of the 90s. The market is depicted the same way it looked when it opened. Millions of stalls with tents around the Gorbunov Palace of Culture worked in any weather. All the alleys were occupied — music, videos, all sorts of soft — the CDs were already there, but before that — tapes, vinyl and huge crowds of people. One could buy music only in the «Melodia» shops — there were dozens of them in Moscow — and in the audio kiosks next to the metro. But only a certain range of products was in those shops. You could find anything at Gorbushka. If you still couldn’t find something, that would have been obtained, recorded or brought to you next Sunday. That wasn’t a market as much as it was a hobby club.

The flow of people coming to make it in Moscow, emerged in the 1990s. In the 1970s-1980s people used to come to Moscow to study, they would graduate and stay to work.


The edge between the 1980s and 1990s implies omnipresent dirt and street trade to everyone and everywhere. The general perception of the city can be described as a yellow-grey shabby facade. That is the reason why people voted for Luzhkov when he ran for a second term. During that short period, when he was the mayor, the houses were being repaired, bumps on the roads were being aligned, the bridges were being built. However, eventually, it all went wrong.

The evening date on the roof of 1 Taras Shevchenko Embankment. That is a reference to the late 1990s because the illumination returned to the city by the end of the decade. The first half is just a gray dim city.

Banks and other new-Russian buildings were replacing the historical ones. On one hand, it’s not very good, but on the other — at least the buildings were maintained, while the inhabited ones simply turned to trash and fell apart. It wasn’t the bank that was shot here, but the Federal State Institution of Culture Scientific Research Institute for Cinema Arts on Degtyarny lane.

The first elite high schools were being opened during the same period. The characters drive into the Nikolaevskaya high school here. There actually was a high school in that building, but it was another one — the Kositsin high school, and now the International Fund for Slavic Literature and Culture takes its place.


There had already been many foreign cars in Moscow by that time. The roads seem empty in comparison with the current situation, but the traffic looks quite modern, the first traffic jams seem to appear.