Sunday, June 2, 2013

By Stephen Wilson
Second City Teacher

(Moscow, Russia)  -  I visited one haunted building which chilled me.  Moscow might well be one of the most haunted cities in Europe.  

You could easily reach this conclusion if you avidly listened to many of the ghost stories springing up all over the city.  In the 1930's, Tallinn won the reputation for being the most haunted city in Europe and ghost-hunters were drawn to it. 

Now even the local Estonians are unaware of this.  If it was not Tallinn, it was either Prague or London.  

Now it is Moscow's turn.  For over the past few years we have witnessed a plethora of publications on ghosts.  You          can discover ghost stories in books which come under titles 'Mystical places of Cities in Russia and the World', by I Shlionskaya'. You seldom come across a book titled  'Moscow Ghosts'.  Russians are less blunt.

You'll find them under titles such as 'Legend's of Moscow', 'Mystical Moscow' and 'Legends and Folklore of Russia'.  There are stories about Phantom warplanes flying over the sky, ghostly world war two regiments going on the offensive and the ghosts of Lenin, Stalin and Ivan the Terrible are reputed to emerge during times of great political upheaval.  Many of those stories are based on eye-witness accounts, hearsay, gossip and the odd prank.  

I visited one of the most haunted buildings 'The House on the Embankment,' which is within the vicinity of The Kremlin.


The House on the Embankment must represent one of the eeriest haunted buildings in Moscow.  Its presence along the Moscow river remains formidable and foreboding.  The house seems to have swallowed up many of its former residents who were victims of Stalin's repression.  Its dark reputation is starkly demonstrated by its past names: 'The House of Suicides,' 'The Kremlin Crematorium,' and  'The shooting Gallery'.  It is now currently known as 'The House on the Embankment' after the famous novel by Yuri Trifonov,' whose father was a victim of the Purges in 1937.  

The gloomy building stands along the Moscow River at 3 Serfimovichskaya ulitsa.  A good view of the building can be seen from just across the river from the park alongside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.  The building has a museum which is well worth visiting and is free of charge! The staff are very friendly and welcoming!

The grandiose building was the brainchild of the great architect Boris Iofan, who also had a hand in designing parts          of Moscow State University.  The building represented a gem or masterpiece of contemporary architecture.  It was once         actually avante garde! For no such building had ever been erected in Europe.  It was staggeringly colossal.  This       magnificent wonder comprises eleven floors, 24 closets and 505 rooms.  Since it was built to specifically cater for the elite of the Communist party, it provided many facilities and perks unavailable to most Soviet citizens.  It had beauty salons, a cinema, a theatre, sports facilties, a restaurant, dry-cleaners and a post office.  Each room had the latest appliances,  such as a telephone, modern furniture and oak parquet floors.  At this time telephones were deemed a luxury.  The new furniture in each room was made from sea-oak and leather.  Children could play in gardens and obtain access to all kinds of prized goods! 

The residents of this building were like  a 'who's who' of the apex of power. They included Stalin's family, Zhukov, Konev,          Marshal Tukhachevskii and the air-designer Artyom Mikoyan.  This is to name but a few! 

Why was it built? It now appears that the main idea was to concentrate all Stalin's potential rivals in one location, so that it would be easier to find and execute them.  By taking up residence in this building you were inadvertently turning yourself into a sitting duck of the secret police.  This was not how it appeared in 1930.  Since the Soviet elite was concentrated in this building of stone and glass towers, it represented a kind of government within a government, comparable to the Vatican.

Life started off great! The residents enjoyed all kinds of perks, such as trips abroad, Black Sea holidays and being driven around the city by chauffers.  It must have seemed as if the bad times were over and the horrors of the Civil war, famine and great upheaval had become a distant memory and that this new building epitomized 'the silver on the horizon'.  

So new residents can be forgiven for believing they had entered paradise.  Unfortunately, this dazzling paradise turned into a living hell.  Within a few years of taking up residence the repression began.  Residents started to be picked up and arrested as 'enemies of the people'.  They often simply disappeared never to be heard of again.  Not surprisingly a tense atmosphere arose where locals began to distrust each other and kept themselves to themselves.  This anxious atmosphere of fear was captured by the classic novel of Yuri Trifonov's 'Dom na Naberezhnoi'.

The author grew up in this building! In this novel he describes how one woman is so paralyzed with fear she prefers to remain locked up in impenetrable darkness.  She shuns the light as much as a vampire.  She is trying to conceal herself in darkness from all kinds of predators.  She has created her own 'inner hell' to avoid another hell! 

The writer Orlando Figes has recorded how people felt in his aptly titled book, 'The Whisperers', where people talked in a low voice, created their own private language and seldom communicated with strangers. 'Wall had ears', and the secret police seemed everywhere even where they were not. Figes stated 'So many people disappeared in 1937-1938, particularly in the party intelligentsia circles of the major capital, that the arrests appeared random as if anyone could be picked up by the black Marias that roamed the streets at night.

The prison population was a broad cross section of the population.  By the Autumn of 1938, virtually every family had lost a relative, or knew someone with imprisoned relatives.  People lived in fearful expectation of the knock on the door in the middle of the night, they slept badly and awoke when they heard a car pull up outside or in the corridors before going back to sleep, relieved that the visitors were not for them'. (Orlando Figes, The Whisperers, 2006).

Witnesses who lived just across the river would notice the lights being switched off and on in the early hours of the morning and thus knew the secret police had come to arrest people.  As many as one out of four residents were taken away by the police.

An estimated 800 people may have been arrested and imprisoned, while 400 were shot.  The figures were previously 700 imprisoned and 300 killed, but this now appears to be a gross underestimate.

Vladimar Piatnitsky, a resident who spent his childhood in the building, stated: 'There was more than 500 flats for the elite party workers in that gloomy building and arrests were a regular occurrence.  Because I was always playing in the courtyard and corridors, I saw several arrests.  In the evenings, as the house grew dark, the house became deserted and silent.  It was as if the inhabitants had gone into hiding in the expectation of catastrophe.  Suddenly,       several cars would drive into the yard, men in uniforms and plain clothes would jump out and walk towards the staircase        entrances - each one knew the way to his address.  Then one saw the lights go on in several apartments.  Since I knew where everyone lived, I could work out who was being arrested.  If all the lights in the apartment went on, it was a search, in those days people expected to be arrested, but they did not know when their turn would come.'

Of the people who expected to be arrested, some had prudently packed their bags, kept some bread and sent their children and wives to places of safety with other relatives.  Not everything went according to plan.  Many committed suicide rather than face a dreadful interrogation, and maybe torture.  Hence, the later title  of the building 'The House of Suicides'.

According to some reports and rumours, ghosts haunt this building. Locals complain of seeing strangers behind them when they look into their mirrors, of ghosts silently gliding up stairways, and of odd sounds of music of the 1920's and 1930' coming from empty apartments.  The most prominent ghost is known as 'The daughter of the Commander,' who is reputed to haunt the stairway of the building and has been seen around the Estrado Theatre.  According to reports, the girl's parents were both arrested by the secret police.

Shortly afterwards, in the evening the police returned to try and arrest the daughter.  However, the girl declared to the police that should anyone step into this apartment, or approach the doorway, she would shoot them with a revolver.  She was reputed to be an excellent shot.  The police chief Narkomo Yezhovy retaliated by sealing off the entrance, cutting off the water, electricity and the phone.  

Within a week, the girl was crying 'Help me.Somebody help me'.  Nobody responded.  Her pleas were ignored by neighbors, too terrified to help her.  Finally, the cries for help grew fainter, until complete silence reigned.  The poor girl may have died from thirst, hunger or shot herself.  Whatever happened, her ghost has been seen around the building ever since.

The playwright and writer, Edward Khrutsky recalled that 'I spent New year in this building.  As always, I celebrated it in noisy company.  The guests left around midnight.  I went out for a smoke on the balcony and for some fresh air - and unexpectedly heard some music being played. It was an old melody popular in the 1930's called The Tango in the Park'.  I became curious about whether a new resident had moved in whom nobody had noticed.' 

Khrutsky went up to the floor above from where he heard the music.  He approached the door, from which he heard the melody and rang the bell.  The music died down - there was a complete silence.

Khrutsky pushed the door and it opened.  He found the room utterly bare.  Not a soul was in sight!  

Afterwards, Khrutsky discovered that in the 1930's there lived a family who before their arrest, liked to listen to the Tango song.

Other local residents claim that they have seen odd specters climbing up stairways, floating up and going around the place.

There are also signs of poltergeist activities, such as inexplicit knocking, chairs and tables suddenly moving around.  The ghosts seem to be restless and can't find peace of mind.  Some of the locals who were disturbed by the unwanted presence of spirits called in a priest to try and exorcise the ghosts, but this largely proved ineffective.  Ghosts continue to stalk the building.

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