Water for the Russian Tsar

The first water supply system in Moscow was built at the end of the 15th century thanks the Italian architect Pietro Antonio Solari

A city of ponds and wells

In spite of the fact that the first written mentions of water supply systems date back to the 1st century BC and are even mentioned in the Bible, they did not appear in Russia until much later. The first water supply system, made out of wooden pipes, appeared in Veliky Novgorod in the 11th century. In north-eastern parts of Russia that have numerous rivers and lakes, there weren’t as many problems with obtaining fresh water as in the east and south of Europe. Moscow was no exception. In the first few centuries after the city was established, there was no water supply or sewage system. Muscovites drank water from numerous wells (there were around 5,000 of them throughout the city), and dumped waste directly into the streets. Back then the environmental conditions in the city were much better, which meant that water from the rivers was safe to drink. Today, a lot of the districts in Moscow are named after rivers that once flowed with fresh water: Presnya, Neglinka, Serebryanka. In order to contain the water, Muscovites blocked off rivers in the city and created ponds. It may be hard to believe in this day and age, but in the beginning of the 18th century there were at least 800 ponds with fresh water in Moscow.

Tsar’s water supply

Like many things in Rus, changes to the water supply were introduced by foreigners, who offered to set up the first water supply system in the city in the Moscow Kremlin for Ivan the Great. Water in any medieval fortress, including the Moscow Kremlin, was a strategic good. Cut off a fortress from its water source, and it would almost instantly fall to invaders. In order to prevent this from happening, water gates and water towers were built next to rivers, along with passages that led to them directly from the fortress walls. For example, the Kolomensky Kremlin, which was built to resemble the Moscow Kremlin, had a water gate and a walled off passage that led to the Oka River. The passage had room for two wagons with barrels of water. In Moscow, the water gates were the Moskvoretskiye and Kosmodamianskiye gates of Kitay-Gorod. However, water in the Moscow Kremlin was delivered from the Borovitskiye gates, which were closest to the Moscow River. There were secret wells located in the Tainitskaya, Arsenalnaya, and Vodovzvodnaya towers of the Kremlin to be used in the event of a siege. The well in the Arsenalnaya, which still exists today, became the source of the first water supply system. In 1492, the first water supply system in the Kremlin was designed and then built by the Italian architect Pietro Antonio Solari at the order of Ivan the Great. The gravity-flow pipeline provided the tsar with drinking water.

Watchmaker or plumber?

However, a full-fledged water pipeline with a mechanical water supply only appeared in Moscow in 1633, thanks to another foreigner named Christopher Galloway. Interestingly enough, Galloway was best known as a talented watchmaker, not the creator of a water pipeline in the Moscow Kremlin. He created one of the versions of the clock on top of the Spasskaya tower in the Moscow Kremlin (the clock did not last long). Christopher Galloway’s water pipeline lasted much longer, existing for about a century. And it was a truly complex mechanism from a technical standpoint. Water from the river flowed into a well made out of white stone, located in the basement of the Vodovzvodnaya tower of the Moscow Kremlin. It was then transferred to a special reservoir and from there flowed through leaden pipes to the the royal palaces: Sytniy, Kormovoy, Khlebniy, Konyushenniy, and Poteshniy. A horse-drawn hoisting machine was used to lift the water up to the reservoir. The unique water pipeline stopped functioning after a fire in 1737.

Pipeline to fight cholera

In spite of the fact that water in the tsar’s palaces of the Moscow Kremlin was supplied through a pipeline, Moscow residents started experiencing clean water deficits. The city was growing, and waste volumes were growing. Because there was no sewage system, the waste was dumped directly into the streets. No wonder that by the beginning of the 18th century, the city’s once-clean rivers and ponds turned into fetid streams, a breeding ground for dysentery. Chistiye Prudy, which Muscovites loved so much, were filthy during these years due to all the impurities that had accumulated in the area. It may sound like fantasy, but by the middle of the 18th century the huge city only had three wells with clean drinking water: Androniyevsky, Trehgorniy, and Preobrazhensky. Moreover, water delivery services were expensive for the city’s residents. Soon, poor sanitary conditions led to several outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, and a number of other diseases. In 1771, 700-800 people a day were being buried in Moscow. A plague epidemic took over a quarter of the city’s population. The situation prompted the city’s residents to write a petition to Catherine the Great with a request to install a water supply system for the general population. Muscovites begged the empress to find good water on the outskirts of Moscow and bring it to the city. In spite of the fact that St. Petersburg, which was Russia’s capital at the time, did not have a water supply system, the empress decided to grant the request. However, it was difficult to find a source of clean water. A Swedish lieutenant-general by the name of Friedrich Wilhelm Bauer came to the city’s rescue.

Gromovoy spring

Bauer approached the task with the seriousness of a military commander. He diligently inspected the surrounding areas of the city and decided that it would make the most sense to deliver water from an area now known as Mytishchi. In a magnificent pine forest, Bauer unexpectedly discovered a spring with the purest spring water, a 3-meter high water fountain coming right out of the ground. Local residents claimed that the Gromovoy spring was sacred, since it appeared after the ground was struck by lightning. Tests showed that the spring could generate over 1.5 million liters of clean water a day. This was not enough for a big city, but Bauer found a solution. He drilled several wells nearby, which also yielded springs with the same fresh water. Expert calculations showed that 17 springs were enough to give the city the daily water supply residents needed. The downside was that the waterway would have to be 20 versts long. The city had no experience with implementing projects of this scale. After many long meetings, it was decided to build a meter-wide brick waterway parallel to the Yauza River. The water would run along it to the center of Moscow, Sukharevskaya Square. There would be three aqueducts along the waterway. The largest one, Rostonskiy, was 356 meters in length and still exists today. The water was designed to run along it, past Sokolniki and three stations, turn toward Sokharevskaya Tower, and end up in Samotechniy Pond. The unique project was approved on July 28, 1779, and construction began right after. A grandiose sum of over one million rubles was allocated for the project, and the people dubbed the Rostonskiy aqueduct “the million ruble bridge.” But even such a large sum of money could not guarantee that the project would be completed quickly, and the construction of the first water supply system for Muscovites went on for the next 25 years.

Who stole the water?

From the first days of construction, the project ran into odd, almost mystical problems. First, Bauer died in 1783, at the age of 52. He was replaced by the engineer-colonel I.K. Gerard. In 1787, Catherine the Great decided that she wanted to see the project’s progress. In honor of the event, it was decided to commission the section of the waterpipe from Gromovoy spring to Sokolniki. The water started running along the brick waterway, and was served to Catherine the Great in a samovar for tea. The Empress was happy, writing in her journal: “The best construction project in Moscow is definitely the Rostonskiy waterpipe, it looks light as a feather.” Unfortunately, she was mistaken, and the construction of the Moscow water supply system ended with a huge scandal. On October 28, 1804, the Mytishchi water supply system was commissioned. The water started running from Gromovoy spring to the Samotechniy Pond in Moscow, located 26 kilometers away. Muscovites happily waited to get 330,000 buckets of fresh water a day. But it was not meant to be. The water was pumping into the system at Mytishchi, but what came out on the other side in Moscow was 40,000 buckets of muddy water that smelled like a swamp. For a long time, what exactly was happening to the spring water remained a mystery. Instead of the planned eight liters of clean water per person, the city was getting about a liter of groundwater, which left much to be desired. The problem was only discovered in 1823, when the water pipe’s masonry collapsed near the Alekseevsky village. However, the water was still being delivered to Moscow in the same amount. It turned out that the water had been coming from the Sokolniki Grove all along, seeping into the waterway underground. The spring water from Mytishchi was being absorbed into the ground because some sections of the pipeline were leaking between Mytishchi and Sokolniki.

From Mytishchi to Rublevo

As soon as the leaks in the water supply were discovered, Nicholas I allocated additional funds in 1826 to rebuild the entire pipeline. The project took two years to develop. It was decided to leave the Sokolniki section of the water supply system alone, running a new brick waterway from the Alekseevsky village along the modern Prospekt Mira to the Sukharevskaya tower, making it essentially the first water tower in Moscow. The reconstructed water supply system was completed in 1835 and… again there wasn’t enough water. Instead of 330,000 buckets, the supply system provided just 180,000. The water was still leaking out in the old section of the pipeline, which had been built by Bauer. Soon, because Gromovoy spring was being depleted, the supplied water amount decreased to 100,000 buckets a day. In order to remedy the problem, a Moskvoretsky water supply system that delivered water from the Moscow River was built. The Mytishchi water supply system was repaired again, with a partial change in the route. By this time, the Rostokinskiy aqueduct was no longer needed. Water ran along cast-iron pipes instead of wooden ones like before, and there were iron bridges for the pipes. In 1858, Muscovites finally started receiving 505,000 buckets of pure spring water a day. After ending up in Samotechniy Pond, it was distributed to the main squares in the city. According to the major newspapers of the time, Catherine the Great’s dream had come true: “every poor person could find fresh, healthy water next to their home.” By 1896, the water barrier at Mytishchi was lowered by 30 meters, and Moscow was getting 1.5 million buckets of water a day. After upgrades and the installation of powerful water pumps, the city was getting 3.5 million buckets of water a day. The Mytishchi water supply system still exists today, but supplies a minimal amount of water. Still, the capital is grateful for the foreigners who gave Moscow it’s first three water supply systems.



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