The Arbat is a true symbol of old Moscow, and has recently celebrated its 500th anniversary. Its name is first mentioned in the city chronicles of 1493. In that year the whole city was engulfed in a terrible fire, sparked by a candle in the Church of St. Nicholas in Peski, which is situated on the Arbat. This disaster led to the well-known saying: 'A penny candle razed Moscow to the ground.'
It is far from certain where the famous mame Arbat comes from. It might be from the Slavonic root gorbat (humpy) which at that time meant 'hilly ground'. The word is sometimes linked with the Arabic word arbad meaning 'suburb,' for in the 15th century only the Kremlin itself was regarded as the city proper. In those days the Arbat was the place where caravans with goods from the East would stand, and an Arabic word could well have been assimilated into the local tongue.
Initially there were many slobodas in the Arbat. The word sloboda meant a settlement exempted from certain obligations to the State. However, from the second half of 18th century the Arbat became the most aristocratic quarter of the city, just like Prechistenka. It was often described as the St. Germain of Moscow, and the Muscovite intelligentsia settled in this area. The Arbat and Prechistenka have much in common in their history and character. There have never been any factories here, nor any workers' huts, and there were no taverns or bazaars. Muscovites used to say: 'For money, go to Zamoskvorechye, for a career, go to St. Petersburg, but for knowledge and memories, go to the Arbat.'
The area between the Arbat and Prechistenka takes us back to the unique world of quiet lanes where each house is still steeped in the atmosphere of old Moscow.