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The China Town that has nothing to do with China

Published time: February 04, 2010 21:45
Edited time: February 04, 2010 21:45

There is only one China Town in the world that has nothing to do with China. RT takes you for a walk around “Kitai Gorod” – one of Moscow’s oldest areas – and explains the origins of the name.

“Kitai” means China, while “Gorod” is town, but it isn’t your run-of-the-mill China Town. The name’s origin is unclear, but it is thought to originate from an obsolete word meaning “fortifications”. And sure enough, it’s a town within a town – Kitai Gorod was once encircled by medieval walls.

From its earliest days it was a bustling trading quarter. One reminder of that is Solyanka Street. “Sol’”, the Russian word for salt, used to be sold there, giving the street its name.

In the 18th century, Kitai Gorod became the base of an ambitious project of Empress Catherine the Great – the Moscow Orphanage was founded there to educate homeless children to the best standards of the time.

After the revolution, however, the orphanage was abandoned and in the 1950s the building was nearly torn down on Stalin’s orders. He was allegedly talked out of the idea, and nowadays it hosts the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Nonetheless, there is still plenty of Stalin-era architecture on show. Statues on one of the apartment blocks in the area depict a male and female farmer and are regarded as one of the grandest examples of Soviet architecture.

Its imposing façade is certainly eye-catching, but it is also worth looking in its courtyard to uncover some of the darkest pages of Moscow’s history. One of the mansions in Kitai Gorod used to belong to a Tsarist General, Nikolay Khitrovo – a brave commander and a philanthropist. In 1823 he bought a neglected plot of land nearby, to set up a market with the best intentions in mind.

However, in a bizarre twist, by the end of the century, long after the general’s death, the market, dubbed in his name – Khitrov – had turned into the city’s most notorious slum, a magnet for crime and poverty, and a very scary place! The Soviet authorities were quick to destroy it. Even though there is nothing left of Khitrov now, some people claim the area still has a rather odd feel to it.

To end the stroll, one should look at the Ivanovsky Convent, founded in the 16th century by the wife of Tsar Vasily the Third to celebrate the birth of her son, who grew up to be Ivan the Terrible.

It effectively became a prison for unwanted wives and noblewomen thrown there either for political reasons or for real crimes. So to learn some of Moscow’s most dramatic stories – take a walk around Kitai Gorod.