Bolotny Island

Project: History and architecture of GES-2

Until 1786, there was no island in Moscow: Bolotny Island only was formed when it became necessary to repair the pillars of what is now Bolshoi Kamenny Bridge, which had been damaged by floods. Water had to be diverted to the swamp that occupied the old bed of the Moskva River. This was how the Vodootvodny Canal appeared, and how a part of the city—which included the royal gardens, a handful of churches, and the chamber of the “royal gardener” and Duma clerk Averky Kirillov on the Bersenevskaya Embankment—came to be surrounded by water. Surprisingly, despite having existed for over two centuries, the island still lacks an official name: it is sometimes called Balchug, sometimes Sadovniki, sometimes Bolotny, and even sometimes the Nameless Island.

Regular flooding meant the area around here was largely deserted. A flood in 1908 saw water levels rise by eight metres and any trace of any ‘island’ vanish: people travelled down what had once been streets in barges. In the intervals between the flooding, it was not just gardens, but people that were watered here: in 1552, Ivan the Terrible opened Russia’s first tavern for his “oprichniki” (guardsmen), and the Kamennomostsky state-owned drinking yard (later the Wine and Salt yard) operated here from 1734. Today’s Bolotnaya Square was occupied by the bustling stalls of the Bolotny market. Floods would only cease definitively in the 1930s, when the authorities began regulating the canal’s levels through the construction of granite embankments.

A flood in Moscow, 1908
Photo: Mosenergo Development History Museum

Something resembling order only began to appear on Bolotny towards the end of the eighteenth century, with the construction of the Krigskomissariat complex (24 Kosmodamianskaya Embankment, 1778–1780), designed by Nikolai Legrand and Vitaly Bazhenov. From the nineteenth century, industry began to develop of island: the Gustav List mechanical plant opened in 1863 (one of its gates, flanked by two statues of workers on pedestals, can be seen at 14 Bolotnaya Square to this day), the Einem confectionary factory in 1867 (“Red October” after the revolution), and the Raushskaya power station, the current GES-1, in 1886.

Gradually, Bolotny came to attract a more fashionable public: the Imperial River Yacht Club was founded in 1867 on the spit of the island, while a mansion for the sugar factory owner and philanthropist Pavel Kharitonenko was built by the then-novice architect Fyodor Shekhtel at 14 Sofiyskaya Embankment (1891–1893, now the British ambassador’s residence). Yet in spite of this, when at the start of the twentieth century the Moscow City Duma began searching for a site on which to build the Tramway plant (the name by which GES-2 was initially known), the island opposite the Kremlin was still considered something of a backwater. Until the construction of the House on the Embankment (1928–1931), next to no one lived here.

The industrial districts running from the Moskvoretsky bridge to the spit were of little interest to anyone for the duration of the twentieth century. In the mid-2000s, however, the ArtStrelka cultural centre appeared in the former garages of the Red October factory. This signalled the start of Bolotny Island’s shift from industrial to artistic production: in 2009, the Strelka Institute of Media, Architecture, and Design opened here, and GES-2 House of Culture welcomed its first visitors in 2021.

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