Petya, our architectural guide, kindly sheltered us at his dacha the evening before our tour along the Moscow River. We awoke to the darkness of 4 a.m. and pulled on thermals and waterproof apparel. Coffee, tvorog and jam replaced the lingering taste of wine before we made our way to the riverbank through a light rain.
Before paddling could commence, the boats had to be assembled, a team-building puzzle we solved … eventually. Our paddles were the double-blades used for kayaks, but the boats more closely resembled rubber dinghies stretched along metal ribbing until they resembled canoes. Not a task for the weak fingered.
As our flotilla left shore, the sky lightened and our paddles fell into an uneven cadence. Everywhere you looked were shades of green – the trees, brush, and grasses along the riverbank were reflected in the water, which, in turn, tinted the sky a greenish-gray.
Our first abandoned estate was originally a school for disabled boys, built in 1913. Situated atop a hill with a view down to the water, the domed building gave off the smell of rot and mildew. The owner fled Russia during the 1917 Revolution and the building was turned first into an orphanage, then a home for children with physical handicaps. Before we returned to the river, Armenian cognac was swigged, and innumerable cigarettes were smoked.
We settled into a rhythm: pile back into the boats, paddle about 30 minutes, pull up onto the riverbank, hike up to a crumbling mansion, sanatorium, school, or church, listen to Petya's historical context, snack, and repeat. The journey to each new building felt like a miniature pilgrimage, particularly when the rain fell heavily or we wound up in an exquisite church. The architectural styles we viewed followed no particular rhyme or reason – Petya wasn't taking us on a tour of a particular architectural school. Rather, the course of the river dictated what we saw, when we saw it and how we saw it: Did the sun shine or did we stomp around the estate in the pouring rain?
Petya determined where we stopped, disembarked and which buildings warranted our attention. Given my poor Russian, I was only able to understand about a quarter of his historical background, and the buildings were rather distracting. Like an inattentive schoolgirl, I kept spotting crumbling bricks and wandering off.
I liked it best when neighboring trees, shrubs and vines crossed property lines, invading broken windows and taking root in stairwells. It felt wholly appropriate that most of the buildings Petya led us to required a trek through the woods. By the end of the day, my shoulders ached, unaccustomed to the exercise, and I felt sure my skin would never fully dry.
The palatial merchant estate of Lyubovino was built in 1911 during Russia's “golden age” of stately home architecture. Over a thousand people were involved in the construction of the manor house, the wings, and the park; the interiors were decorated with countless antiques and the stone terraces were adorned with marble busts. After the revolution, Lyubvino was used to house homeless children; today the house and estate lie empty.
The Polushkino Sanatorium is something of a mecca for fans of derelict buildings. The retreat opened a day before the outbreak of World War II and soon became a battle zone. In the mid-1990s, the sanatorium was abandoned and looted.
In the 19th century, the Vasilevskoye Estate belonged to the father of the revolutionary Alexander Herzen and subsequently to Prince Shcherbatov and his wife. The latter were avid travelers and would return home laden with exotic plants and animals. At their request, the manor house at Vasilevskoye was built in the style of a medieval castle. After the revolution, it was converted into a holiday retreat. The castle lay derelict from the mid-1990s until its recent restoration.
The Berezhki Estate was built in the early 20th century and converted into a holiday retreat after the October Revolution. All that remains today is the retreat community center built in the 1960s, two wooden wings, and an abandoned chapel, erected in the memory of the owner's son. As legend has it, he was savaged by wolves in a nearby wood. The neoclassical manor house (designed by the renowned architect Ivan Zholtovsky) was torn down in 1990.
The construction of the Vvedenskoye Estate and its exquisite palace and park ensemble – a gift from Emperor Paul I to one of his mistresses – began at the end of the 18th century. In the years immediately after the revolution, the estate accommodated an orphanage, artists' and industrial workshops, and a museum of aristocratic life. In 1933, the estate was converted into a sanatorium.