|Posol with Pimm's|
The building is a magnificent house just over the river from the Kremlin and was built in 1893 for the Kharitonenko family, who were Ukrainian sugar barons. They had English nannies for their children and English taste in domestic décor. They therefore hired the Volga German architect, Franz Shekhtel, to give them an interior (he did not design the building) which had the look of a grand Victorian country house.
Shekhtel went on to become the most celebrated architect in Moscow during the last years of the Tsarist regime, designing what is now known as the Maxim Gorky House and the extraordinary Yaroslavl Station, amongst many other things. He changed his first name to Fyodor after the outbreak of hostilities with Germany in 1914 and never worked again. His submission to the competition to design Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square (it took the form of a pyramid) was rejected and he died in extreme poverty in 1926—another great talent wasted by the cultural holocaust of Bolshevism.
In those years, the Kharitonenko house was used by the Soviet Foreign Ministry to accomodate important guests in the country, who included H.G. Wells, Arthur Ransome, Enver Pasha, Armand Hammer and Isadora Duncan. In 1931 it became the British Embassy, which it remained until 2000 when the Embassy moved to a new building near Smolenskaya metro station and this building was closed for renovation. It re-opened as the Ambassador’s Residence four years ago, now looking much like it did when lived in by its original owners.
The house is also interesting because it was the site of one of the greatest pre-Revolution parties to be written about in English. This took place in January 1912 and was described by a young Scottish diplomat, Robert (later Sir Robert) Bruce Lockhart, in his wonderful book, Memoirs of a British Agent. I read the party scene on air just over a year ago, and discussed the house with the then Ambassador, Anne Pringle.
At our slightly more modest gathering last night, we drank Pimm's on the balcony before the new Посол (Posol = Ambassador), Tim Barrow, proposed a handsome toast to Her Majesty in Shekhtel's equally handsome Ballroom (see above). This is on the first floor and looks out across the Moscow River to the Kremlin. Scriabin and Shaliapin performed in it when Pavel Kharitoneko owned the house, and one would like to think that the cultural links with Britain would be continued with more concerts of that sort in this magnificent setting.
How does all this help people master the English language, I hear you cry? Not at all. It just makes it more worth mastering.