Thursday, January 17, 2019

Lubyanka about Far More than Russian Security Services

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 17 – For all Russians and most others, the name “Lubyanka” stands for the KGB in Soviet times and the FSB now because it is on that square that the headquarters of the dreaded security and intelligence services are located.  But in fact, as a new book shows, the Lubyanka is about far more than that.

            In a new book, entitled simply Lubyanka (in Russian; Moscow, 2018, 416 pp.), Moscow historian Vladimir Muravyev says that the square and the area around it has a rich history and certainly deserves to be known for more than just the offices of the KGB or FSB.  Nezavisimaya gazeta reviews the book today (

            There is no agreement on the etymology of the word Lubyanka, Muravyev says. Some historians believe that it is related to a place where people in the 12th and 13th centuries gathered bark from trees in a forest for bast sandals and other goods.  Others suggest it arose in the 17th century because such goods were traded there.

            And still others say, the historian continues, that the name was given to the place because Ivan III resettled some people from Novgorod there after the defeat of that outpost of Russian democracy because there was a Lubyanka street and district in their home city. If so, the name today and what it is associated with is especially ironic. 

            Regardless of the source of the name, Muravyev continues, the Lubyanka is one of the most ancient places in the city, going back to the period even before the city was formally established.  It became the sites of the palaces of the princes Khovansky and Obolensky and was the residence of the Russian archers.

            It might have been given other names, especially after the Kitay gorod district was established, but the population always has referred to it as the Lubyanka.  Its current configuration and size were established in the 1870s, although fires and urban renewal have eliminated some of the most important historical buildings.

            Perhaps the most noteworthy building on the Lubyanka before the KGB headquarters was the palace of Fyodor Rostopchin, the governor general of Moscow at the time of Napoleon’s attack on the city. Many who fought at Borodino were treated in his house, and he directed the evacuation of the city from there.

            Many buildings were destroyed as the city was transformed in the 1930s and after World War II.  The palace of Prince Dmitry Pozharsky who fought against the Poles was torn down in the first period, and in 1957, many other buildings were removed in order to make room for the Children’s World department store. 

            But the most remarkable development in the last century has been the rise of “a whole ‘Chekist quarter’” with the centerpiece being the building many try to avoid because of its associations with the terror even though it began life as the headquarters of the Russian-American life insurance company.

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