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Balchug (Russian: Ба́лчуг, IPA: [ˈbɑlt͡ɕʊk]), also known as Bolotny Island ("The Marsh Island", Russian: Боло́тный о́стров), is an island in the very centre of Moscow, Russia, squeezed between the Moskva River (just opposite the Kremlin) and its old river-bed which was turned into the Vodootvodny Canal in 1786. It is an integral part of historical Zamoskvorechye area; administratively, its territory belongs to Zamoskvorechye and Yakimanka municipal districts.
In a strict sense, the name Balchug refers only to the short Balchug street, crossing the center point of the island parallel to Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, and three city blocks around it. The island, like other islands on Moskva River, does not have an official name in Russian; rather, each neighborhood on the island is referred to with its own name. Unofficially Muscovites use "Bolotny Ostrov" to refer to the island.
History, Balchug Street
This section is based on P.V.Sytin's "History of Moscow Streets" (1948)
Balchug is one of the oldest Moscow streets outside of the Kremlin walls. It emerged towards the end of the fourteenth century, when the new Kremlin built by Dmitri Donskoi pushed the posad settlement into present-day Red Square and further east. The main trading road to the south and the river crossing also moved to the east, to present-day Balchug and Pyatnitskaya streets. The name Balchug comes from Tatar balčyk, meaning 'dirt' or 'mud'. Muddy conditions in the area were caused by migrations of the river bed, frequent floods, and inadequate drainage.
The word "balchug" is most probably derived from Turkish "balchik" which means dense mud.
In the fifteenth century, Prince Vasili I set up royal gardens west of Balchug street (across from the Kremlin). The gardeners settled east of Balchug, giving its name to the Sadovniki neighborhood and present-day Sadovnicheskaya Street. They set up flood control moats connecting River Moskva with the old river bed. Memories of those medieval moats - rovushki and endovy in Old Russian - survive in the names of Raushskaya Embankment and St. George Church "v Endove" (1653). One moat was just 50 meters east of Balchug street and survived until the 1850s.
Eventually, as the city grew south into Zamoskvorechye, Balchug became a market street. Tax records from 1669 counted 45 butchers, 28 bakers, 3 inns, public baths, and dozens of other businesses. In 1701, the Gardens and Balchug were swept by fire; another fire followed in 1730. The market reappeared each time, but in 1735 the government relocated the butchers beyond the city limits; by 1744 the market was selling mostly horses.
1783 flood destroyed most of Balchug and Sadovniki, including the St. George bell tower. By 1786, the city built the original Vodootvodny Canal, a flood control dike following the old river bed. The first metal bridge in Moscow, Chugunny Bridge (1830), connected Balchug with the Zamoskvorechye mainland. A steel bridge north, to Red Square and Zaryadye, was completed in 1872. Until the 1930s, Balchug remained a street of two-story shops; the only four-story building belonged to the Novomoskovskaya Hotel (now the Baltschug Kempinski Hotel).
Construction of the new Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge (1938) changed the street's status again. The main north-south artery moved west, bypassing Balchug. Houses between the bridge and Balchug street were razed (the northern end of this site remains vacant). What was left in the 1930s was destroyed in the 1990s. First, the old Balchug Hotel was built out from 4 to 9 stories high, then a Central Bank building replaced the few surviving buildings between the bridge and Balchug. One nineteenth-century single-story building remains as a facade curtain for a 9-story office block (see facadism).
Vodootvodny Canal; Evolution of the island
In 1692 Bolshoi Kamenny Bridge, the first permanent bridge in the city, linked Zamoskvorechye with the city to the north. Four years later, a triumphal arch, the first in Russia, was set up in wood in front of the bridge to welcome Peter I's arrival from the Azov campaigns. In 1783, the area was swept away by a severe flood which also damaged the bridge. In order to repair it, the Moskva River was temporarily drained, while its old riverbed was reconstructed into the four-kilometer-long Vodootvodny Canal (literally, 'Water Bypass Channel'), which is now spanned by ten bridges.
The first documented project was drawn in 1775, presumably by Matvey Kazakov (senior). In addition to separating Balchug Island from Zamoskvorechye, Kazakov also proposed cutting two flood control dikes west from Bersenevka. This would separate strips of floodland from the mainland, creating two more islands. In the east, Kazakov planned to flood uninhabited farmland permanently and connect the Canal to Moskva River inside the present-day Garden Ring. The eastern end of an island would become Moscow's grain port and warehouse. The moat east of Balchug had to be cleared and widened, too.
This plan materialized in 1783-1786, excluding the grain terminal. An 1807 plan shows only one additional island west of Bersenevka; otherwise, it follows Kazakov's project, with the main island cut into two halves by the Balchug moat.
Evolution of Vodootvodny Canal and the island
1775 Canal project by Matvey Kazakov
After the fire of 1812, the western island and the dike separating it from the mainland were reclaimed for development, and the Moskva River was reduced to about its present-day width (see the 1824 map). The eastern end of the Canal was also reduced to its ordinary width of 30 meters.
In 1835, the city built the Babyegorodskaya Dam west of the island. This enabled barge shipping in the Canal. A new channel extension east was built to bypass the old 90-degree turn; as the 1853 map shows, the new canal cut the Red Hills neighborhood away from the mainland. For a while, the island was cut into three parts, then, when the Balchug moat was filled, in two. The moat parallel to the Garden Ring was filled in the 1930s, with the completion of the Bolshoy Krasnokholmsky Bridge.
Neighborhoods on the island
Four pairs of bridges (Bolshoy Kamenny, Moskvoretsky, Ustinsky, Krasnokholmsky over the Moskva River and their lesser siblings over the Canal) cut the island into five distinct parts. In addition to the bridges listed above, the island is connected to the Zamoskvorechye mainland by two road and four pedestrian bridges over the Vodootvodny Canal; an extension of Patriarshy Bridge is under construction, scheduled for completion at the end of 2007. The City announced plans to build a pedestrian bridge across the Moskva River in Red Hills, but no draft had been published as of 2007.
The oldest part of the island is the most diverse architecturally. Of particular interest is the Averky Kirillov estate (1650s, rebuilt 1703-1711), including the manor house and St.Nicholas church. River banks are dominated by the red-brick buildings of the former Krasny Oktyabr chocolate factory (north) and the yellow Second Powerplant. The grey House on Embankment, facing east, houses two theaters.
The city planners have been contemplating the conversion of Bersenevka industrial buildings into a high-scale hotel and condominium area. The work accelerated recently with the appointment of Guta Development to manage the project.
Boloto, in Russian, is literally 'swamp'. The territory was occupied by royal gardens until 1701. Later, it was cleared for a parade ground and witnessed a number of public executions, including that of Emelyan Pugachev and his fellow Cossack rebels on January 21 [O.S. January 10] 1775.
Despite the unprepossessing name, Boloto was home to some of the finest mansions. One, owned by industrialist Gustav List, eventually became the British Embassy. In the 1890s, the city started a public housing experiment that led to the construction of block-wide apartment houses. One of these structures, directly facing the Kremlin, is now Rosneft headquarters. The city has far-reaching plans to rebuild the low-rise Boloto; as of 2007, they had not materialized. Many historical houses have been evacuated and have stood unattended for years. Bolotnaya Square, facing the Canal, contains Mikhail Chemiakin's controversial sculptures personifying human vices.
Sadovniki west or Balchug proper
The short stretch between Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge and Bolshoy Ustinsky Bridge, including Balchug street and the beginning of Sadovnicheskaya Street), is the most densely built part of the island. It houses Moscow's first electrical powerplant (still active); office space is traditionally occupied by electrical (Mosenergo) and oil companies.
A mixed residential, educational, and industrial neighborhood centered around Sadovnicheskaya Street. Sadovniki east retained most of the traditional Zamoskvorechye air. The recent wave of development replaced the old textile mill with a block-sized office compound. Other than that, the 19th-century architecture remains remarkably well preserved. Sadovniki also possess two 1930s memorial buildings, the constructivist Textile Institute (1938) and postconstructivist School 518, recently rebuilt to the original 1935 drafts and modern safety rules.
Prior to the 1938 construction of Bolshoy Krasnokholmsky Bridge, Red Hills was separated from the island by a narrow canal running just outside of the Garden Ring (see 1853 map). As recently as 15 years ago, the eastern tip of the island was occupied by low-rise industrial property; this was torn down and gradually replaced by a compound of riverside offices, a hotel tower (2006), and the Moscow International House of Music (2003).