Gorky Park in Moscow is not what you think (probably)

Mama was recently startled to find that despite her best efforts on Instagram, at least two of her UK-specific friends seem to have a very Soviet view of the centre of Moscow. Don’t they know that the monumentally ugly Rossiya hotel was pulled down and is now the most hipster of hipstery parks IN THE WORLD?

For example.

We now have trees and specially widened pavements on what used to be an unrelievedly grim multi-lane highway, Tverskaya Street, barreling down to Red Square.

The massive pedestrianisation project of the rest of Central Moscow is almost complete.

Cafe culture, albeit strictly in the spring and summer months, is a thing (in the winter it’s all outdoor skating rinks, light shows and street parties).

Not only this, but you can hire not only bikes but, god love us all, scooters, the better to idly tool your way round the leafy, flower-infested boulevards, past the restored facades of pre-twentieth century mansion houses, factory buildings and churches, or around the ponds. As well as gasp at the monumental Soviet architectural doorway architecture, constructivist balconies and such like.

At night, it’s all lit up!

And at any given moment you are very likely to find the whole of central Moscow putting on some kind of festival. New Year, spring, jam, history, fish, teachers, singing, war – we celebrate them all.

I’ll grant you that some of the residential tower blocks in the suburbs are a bit grim. But if the Moscow Mayor gets his way, many of these are not long for this world either. Of course, this demolition project has prompted the Guardian to publish a series of articles explaining how these are not monstrous carbuncles with inconveniently small kitchens, out of date wiring, inadequate sewage systems and nowhere to put a washing machine, but charmingly well thought out residencies and one of the pinnacles of communist social and engineering achievements, which all the former Soviet states were lucky to benefit from. Why oh why would anyone think of pulling them down? And rehousing the inhabitants!

Although they are right about the fact that the replacement of the generously sized leafy courtyards and five floor blocks with 24-story high rises and concrete forecourts is less than ideal. And that this has proved a lot less popular with Muscovites than perhaps Sobyanin was expecting. Possibly because in addition to the loss of pleasant surroundings, the developers and city hall have also found a clever dodge so that the city government does not have to keep its infrastructure provision in line with the proposed quadrupling of residents.

However.

As a result, Mama is of the mind that perhaps y’all have entirely the wrong picture of Gorky Park, Moscow’s most famous outdoor space in your heads. Which is a shame.

In the foreground on the left are some spiky palm leaves. On the right some formal flowerbeds made from low clipped bushes and some deep red flowers. In the background is a rectangular white stone structure. Two pillars and six pairs of columns hold up a roof of the gateway to Gorky Park in Moscow. It is a bright sunny day and the sky is blue.

So what is Gorky Park like?

In summer, you can lounge around on the free cushions, benches and other seating admiring the flowers.

Selection of white, pink, yellow and red flowers in close up
A circular flowerbed with a swirly pattern made of different coloured flowers, especially red. In the middle an urn made of a clipped bush rather than stone rises up, with spiky leaves growing out of the top. The flowerbed is surrounded by trees and benches, and there are people sitting or walking around it.

Or you can hire all sorts of modes of personal transport: bikes, scooters, tandems and so on and enjoy a lengthy run along the Moscow River embankment.

A white structure holds bikes for hire. Hanging from the ceiling are some skateboards and scooters. On some shelves to the left are roller skates. Two people are talking to the assistant in the centre. They are dressed mostly in white and the assistant has a yellow T short on. In the background are trees. The sky is blue.

Or get a pedalo and drift around the lakes (there are two).

A pond surrounded by some reeds with some pedalos drifting around it. There is a small arched bridge and trees in the background, as well as a sculpture of white boxes stood on one another in a 3x3 grid

You can take part in other sports too, with a beach volleyball area, and plenty of free outdoor yoga classes and the like.

A group of men are bunched under a basket ball hoop, looking up. Another man to the left in green shorts has shot, and the ball is about to go though the hoop. Other players are distributed around the court. A spectator watches from the side. In the background there are people playing beach volleyball in swimming costumes on an artificial beach in Gorky Park.
To the left there is a red stage with Reebock written over it. On stage people in exercise gear demonstrate moves. In front of the stage, some people in aerobics gear are copying them, while others watch. They all have their back to the camera. It is a rainy day, and everyone is dressed for that weather.

There are children’s play areas, which are pretty cool no matter what the weather.

In the Gorky Park playground there is a large wooden blue cruise liner style ship, slighly heeling to one side as if sinking. There are handholds so children can climb the sides and lots of small round portholes because you can climb inside and look out. At the back is a large white sphere, which you can also climb inside and a round red pipe. In the foreground are some wooden steps in the form of waves to climb over or sit on. In the background there are trees without any leaves on.
Behind some bushes there is an area with swings set in a circle suspended from white metal frames. Some of the swings are traditional, some are less so. You can see adults, teenagers and kids in the swinging equipment. In the foreground are some bushes and in the background a concrete building with lots of windows.

Food and drink stalls, cafes and restaurants abound.

There are five food stalls. The signs are all in Cyrillic. The nearest has tea urns with bread snacks a bit like pretzels handing. Stallholders are busy preparing food or standing looking out. One customer is leaning on the stall and chatting to the stallholders. It has been raining and the customers are wearing warm coats, hats and boots.

And! There is a dancing fountain!

In the foreground are spikey blue and white flowers and in the background, out of focus, a fountain arcs water straight up, left and right. A man is looking at it with his back to the camera.

In winter the whole place turns into a giant outdoor ice rink. It’s not quite as big as the one out at VDNKh usually is, but it’s just as cool.

You can also climb on top of the entrance gates to a viewing platform. And visit Gorky Park’s very own museum (it’s on our list. Obviously).

The Gorky Park gateway from underneath. You can se white stone columns on either side and sandy coloured stone above, with large round indentations cur into the stone. The sky is a strong blue colour to either side.

There is even a highly regarded modern art gallery, Garage, to look round.

Delicate blue, purple and white flowers with on tall thin stems with frothy frondy leaves in the foreground. In the background are some trees and grass surrounded by paths, and behind that a silver rectangular building that is Garage art gallery.

And an observatory.

Partially hidden by trees is a small cylindrical red and white building with a shiny silver metal dome that the sunlight is bouncing off. In the foreground there is long grass and a plant with bushy broad leaves. There are some white globe lamps dotted around, close to the ground.

Gorky Park always gets in on any of the big city wide celebrations happening in Moscow, so it’s a definite place to consider going if you want to join in.

Two men and a woman stand around a small forge next to the Moscow River in Gorky Park. The woman is looking down, with her hood up and her hands in the pocket of her coat and operating bellows with her foot. A man opposite her is smiling and holding a long metal rod in the fire. He has on a beanie hat and a cagoule and some gloves. The other man stands between them with his hands in the pockets of his trousers, looking at the fire. He is wearing a hoody and a bodywarmer.
There are a whole bunch of people climbing over tanks parked on the embankment of the Moscow river in Gorky Park
Two large men have picked up a large tractor tire and are carrying them in parallel in a rage. Straw bales mark the area they are racing in. Other people are standing and watching them. It is a wet day.

But you also probably don’t realise how big it is.

Neskuchny Gardens are not boring

The bit with the organised fun, the bit actually called Gorky Park, is really only the start of it.

If you amble further along you get to Neskuchny Gardens, which literally translates to ‘Not Boring Gardens’. These are the remains of the formal gardens belonging to the mansion houses of aristocrats, which after the revolution were commandeered to form the backbone of the new proletarian leisure facility.

This isn’t a mansion house though. It is a library.

A classical looking yellow and white  building with a columned frontage sits on top of a steep hill covered in brown autumn leaves. The trunk of a willow tree leans in from the left, and dangles its thin branches down from the top of the picture.

There are also grottos, statues, pleasant grassy knolls and a continuation of the embankment to continue to stroll along. Somewhere there is also a round pavilion where What? Where? When? is filmed. A quirky and very beloved TV show, it is something like what would happen if you crossed University Challenge and QI, let the participants wear evening dress and had members of the public setting the questions.

And! Mama and Papa came here for their very first date. Which seems to have worked out quite well all told.

Sparrow Hills are quite hilly and might have some sparrows

If you keep going, you will find yourself in the midst of the wooded Sparrow Hills. Through which you can walk and walk and walk, and take in this fabulous building.

It’s the Russian Federation’s Science Academy. Isn’t the architecture just perfect for an academy of sciences? And if you nip across the bridge here you can go to the Moscow Art Deco Museum.

However!

You are still not done and can continue walking though woods, next to the river, past the urban beach, which Mama does not really recommend you swim from, right round to the Luzhniki football stadium, Novodovichiy convent and Moscow City. Although you’ll have to cross the Moscow River to get to them.

Luckily, a brand new method of doing this has just started up – taking a cable car. Which doubles, in winter, as a means of getting to the inner city downhill ski run.

So, Gorky Park. Well worth a visit, especially if you are in Moscow for any length of time, in summer or winter. Not much to get back to the USSR with (you want Muzeon, just over the road, for that) but a lot of other things to see and do.

And for more information about the man behind the name, see this post.

More information

The park has its own website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Terry Pratchett, author.

Address: Krymsky Val, 9, Moscow, 119049

Admission to the park is free.

Opening: 24 hours. Allegedly.

Getting there: For the main entrance, you want either Oktyabrskaya metro station (orange and brown lines) or Park Kultury (red line). But there are a number of other entrance points, notably Vorobyovy Gory (red line), which will give you a walk through the Sparrow Hills wooded area, through Neskuchny Sad/ Not Boring Gardens and on to Gorky Park.

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Fling out two hands at the Moscow Art Deco Museum

It won’t come as any surprise to people who are familiar with certain areas of London, but some Russians have a lot of money.

Quite how much money is actually quite hard to comprehend for mere mortals such as Mama, but let’s just say that the first time Papa heard Alan Sugar’s boast about having made 800 million pounds from scratch in the opening credits to the Apprentice he laughed and laughed and laughed at the idea that this was in any way impressive.

Vast wealth beyond even the most avaricious dreams concentrated in the hands of a very few is what you get when you believe a bit too naively in the capitalist dream, which is what Russia did in the 90s. Not controlling the rampant asset stripping of the former Soviet Union was, in Mama’s opinion, a mistake, and not one made entirely though cynicism or lacking the tools to do so. Not… entirely.

Of course, not all the oligarchs made their trillions from the fire sale of the oil, gas, telecommunication networks, metals, or gemstone industries. Some people managed to make a fortune from kitty litter and concrete, and one of them is Mkrtich Okroyan, who has put his resulting 100 million dollar collection of Art Deco doodads on display in his own private museum in Moscow. As you do.

The Moscow Art Deco Museum is  a large room filled with furniture and figurines as well as some artwork from the Art Deco period.

Mama, all fired up by the Art Nouveau sensibility of Gorky’s House, and her success in accidentally coming across the gem of the Forest Museum, decided to take us there while idly scrolling around Yandex Maps one day.

And what Mama decided after touring the Moscow Art Deco Museum’s one largish room is that it is a pretty good entry into a New Russian pissing contest. Because it is, in fact, only marginally more tasteful than building a house with seventeen fairytale turrets and filling it with repo Louis XIV furniture before covering everything with gold gilt. Says Mama, who thinks you can only really get away with that if you are actually a 17th Century French king with a giant 1000 room palace to fill, and multiple dancing fountains or 200 pairs of diamond studded heels to offset.

Is Mama relentlessly middle class or what?

That said, many individual pieces are very nice indeed.

And the Moscow Art Deco Museum collection includes pieces by some of the big names (Mama gathers, vaguely) in Art Deco sculpting.

An Art Deco figurine bent over in the middle of a dance

Although what Mama most gained from the experience in the end was an overpowering urge to cavort, contortedly, arms outflung.

A dancer in a particularly dramatic pose standing on one leg, with one arm hooked behind her head

She contemplated having us pose in front of the figures and try to copy them in a nod to educational something or other, but a) she probably can’t afford the hospital bills and b) we were supremely uninterested in helping her walk around and photograph everything because there was an Art Deco colouring area and other children there to talk to. And if we got bored of that, the Art Deco style chairs round the Art Deco inspired coffee table we were exercising our creativity on spun round! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Actual Art Deco objects d’art cannot at all compete with that.

A figurine wearing a dramatic blue and red theatre costume at the Moscow Art Deco Museum

You have to buy a photography pass if you want to emulate Mama, by the way, a practice which is dying out in Moscow generally. And what with that and the entrance price, Mama concludes that kitty litter and concrete is not, perhaps, as lucrative as you might suspect. Clearly patronising the arts is an expensive hobby.

Anyway. A visit to the Moscow Art Deco Museum is not going to take up a vast amount of time. So it is nice to know that it is set on the banks of the Moscow River, and that if you shlepp across the bridge nearby, you will be bang in the middle of the Sparrow Hills section of the southern embankment.

And before that you can go and have a look at the rather fabulous building that houses the Russian Academy of Sciences. Mama says it is the architectural equivalent of standing on to of a hill in wet copper armour during a thunderstorm shouting ‘all gods are bastards’ because she thinks its form very much matches its function, and because she has always thought that was one of Terry Pratchett’s best lines.

She is quite pleased that it is a building very visible from a long way away in the current day and age. Just to keep people grounded (hahahahahahahahaha. HAHAHAHAHA. Oh, deary me).

There are cafes dotted around the Moscow Art Deco Museum too, partly because the museum seems to be in some kind of re-working of former factories into trendy office space. Although because it was a weekend, they were mostly closed, and so we had our lunch in a cafeteria attached to a car repair outfit round the corner.

If you are looking for a real post Soviet 90s-esque experience, this should be your stop too.

In fact, Moscow is still full of these stalovayas, the Russian equivalent of the greasy spoon kaff, anywhere where people actually work. They serve food such as hearty soups, plump pork or chicken burgers, buckwheat kasha, a number of (admittedly mostly mayonnaise inspired) salads and cheesecake style puddings out of curds and raisins, washed down with compot or mors, mild tasting drinks made by boiling fruit in water (more or less). Which a distinct step up from MacDonald’s when you are trying to insert a certain amount of food into children with a reasonable level of nutrition. And at a fraction of the price of named chains which do more or less the same but in slightly more up-scale surroundings. Admittedly they have a wider range of tea and coffee options.

No you cannot always just take sandwiches. It’s damn chilly outside in winter. Mama has experimented, but shovelling food into your kids on the Metro is frowned on. Although now it is actually summer, a picnic is something to consider.

From there you can have a pleasantly wooded walk down to Gorky Park. But that is a story for another day.

More information

The Art Deco Museum’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Napier – New Zealand’s Art Deco paradise.

Address:  Luzhnetskaya Quay 2/4, building 4, Moscow, 119270

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday (closed Monday), 11am to 9pm

Admission: 200 roubles for adults, 100 roubles for children, plus some more money if you want to take photos.

Getting there: The nearest metro station is Vorobyovy Gory (red line), which is actually on a bridge over the Moscow river. You need to get to the northern embankment and turn right, away from the big stadium that was one of the World Cup football venues. It’s about a ten minute walk.

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The Moscow Art Deco Museum houses a 100 million dollar collection including this Russian dancer figurine

How and why to get lost at the Russian Forest Museum

Mama once got lost in a forest in Russia (as well as Kolomna).

It was a decidedly worrying thirty minutes, until she and Papa were able to follow the sounds of dacha land back to civilization, popping out of the trees some considerable distance to where they went in to pick a few mushrooms.

This experience was rendered not less freaky by the story their neighbour then told of getting turned around on a similar mission and being stuck in the trees for three days.

Which just goes to show you that Muscovites may know how to fix the central heating system with a bent paperclip and a hammer, but are not at all wilderness ready.

This is a problem because the Russian forest is a wilderness. And huge. And largely left to its own devices.

So Mama was very surprised that the Russian Forest Museum in Moscow is one of the Russian captial’s best kept secrets, which she only stumbled upon by accident.

It’s a bonus that it turned out to be something of a find, and is now one of our favourite museums in Moscow.

Some of this is because of fabulous detailing of the interior, like this traditional wooden window carving.

Undoubtedly more of it is because of the room full off stuffed animals, mimicking a forest glade. Complete with the pleasant sounds of soft bird calls and running water.

The bird calls are recorded, but the water music is because of the actual stream flowing through the diorama. It is CHARMING. We were all CHARMED.

Plus, they have an excellent natural stone floor.

It’s called the Temple of the Forest. Quite right too.

The rest of the Russian Forest Museum is a bit less quirky but no less interesting to poke around, managing to impart all sorts of facts about trees and the other plants and wildlife that you can find among them.

Forest management.

Some tools and other items representing forestry in the Russian Forest Museum Moscow

Fruits of the forest.

Leaves.

Also, Baba Yaga.

The docents in charge of the Russian Forest Museum have also been particularly welcoming and very happy to cater to my and my Sylvan Big Brother’s enthusiasm when ever we pitch up.

They also told us that the Yolka, the children’s show at New Year, is particularly fabulous.

Even the cave where the coats are kept is cool. Noticing the owl is a sign of being a child at heart, the cloakroom attendant explained, because all the kids do, but none of the adults. By and large.

So quite why it is not heaving with interested visitors is a complete mystery to Mama. Although her accompanying Russian friend did point out that if, in fact, Russians want to commune with the silver birches, the ceder trees and the many varieties of fir and wotnot, all they have to do is walk about 200 yards outside of any given town. Even right next to Moscow is a nature reserve which is home to elk and wild boars. Elk! and wild boars!

So, vast expanses of (nature filled) trees, continually on your doorstep. Not as thoroughly exotic as they are to Mama.

Anyway.

It may have been our visit to the Russian Forest Museum which gave Mama the chutzpah to go back into the woods some fifteen years after her first disastrous visit.

Or it may have been the fact that every other tree on the trail to the local swimming hole was marked. Mama’s fellow urbanites may be Russian, but have clearly learned to take no chances.

Since the walk takes about 40 minutes and one tree does start to look much the same as another after a while, at some point the locals have gotten creative, and added signage. There’s only so much excitement to be had from the soft sunlight streaming though the leafy canopy onto the floor of moss and blueberries, the crack of a tree falling over 50 metres away, the smell of damp earth and greenery, and wondering if you will tread on a snake while realising it is more likely to be a frog.

This one says ‘mosquitoes’ and is accurate.

Others hint at the delights of the swimming area ahead.

Swimming costume nailed to a tree

There’s a waterproof visitors book.

And other witty remarks such as ‘sun this way’.

Or, for the way back, ‘your dinner’s getting cold’.

It was fun. But so is the Russian Forest Museum in Moscow. Well worth adding to a walk around the attractively buildinged area immediately south of the Moscow River down from the Kremlin. Which is clearly the subject of a post for another day.

More information

The Russian Forest Museum’s website (in Russian).

Address: Building 4, 5th Monetchikovsky Pereulok, Moscow, 115054

Opening: In summer, Monday – Friday (closed weekends) 10am to 6pm. At other times, the museum is closed Monday and Tuesdays, but open on weekends.

Admission: 150 roubles for adults, 100 roubles for children over seven (under sevens are free).

Getting there: It’s close to Paveletskaya Metro station, on the green and brown lines. You can also walk down from Teatralnaya/ Novokuznetskaya (green, yellow and orange lines) which will take you past a lot of interesting buildings in this older district.

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Suitcases and Sandcastles

The Gorky House Museum, Art Nouveau staircases and the Ryabushinsky Mansion in Moscow

Mama has, over the years, read her way through at least one book by most Russian language writers who are not poets.

I wouldn’t say this has been a hardship, Russian writers are a lot less dour than they are given credit for. Except Dostoevsky. Don’t read him.

But she has read nothing by Maxim Gorky.

Which seemed odd given that he was a writer so famous they named the central park after him.

The thing is, Mama came to Gorky via Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, a book about the extensive network of political prison camps, how they came about, what life was like in them, who got sent there and what it did to them.

Gorky pops up in the bit about the building of the White Sea – Baltic Canal, a project notorious for the number of its laborers, the majority of them from the gulags, it killed. Gorky praised it. He also praised one of the original gulags out on the Solovetsky Islands after he went on a visit there. He is supposed to have righted a newspaper, held upside down in protest by a zek (political prisoner) at the fact that they had been cleaned up and given leisure time and so on for the visit, thus showing his understanding of the deception and his sympathies for the condition of the prisoners.

But what he actually wrote about it was… different.

So Mama had got the impression that Gorky’s fame was mostly built on being a Stalin apologist for hire, and didn’t really feel the need to delve much deeper. Because Mama does not approve of Stalin apologists. Whether for hire or not.

However.

During his time in the Soviet Union Gorky was given a house with a very fabulous staircase in it, and Mama has wanted to see this staircase for quite some time. So off, eventually, we popped to have a look a it. The Gorky House Museum came as a bonus.

This house is one of a number of buildings in Moscow built at a time when Art Nouveau (what the Russians call Style Modern, with a decidedly French accent) was all the rage. The Gorky House Museum is a particularly shining example of this.

Ryabushinsky Mansion in Moscow

Of course, it wasn’t Gorky’s house to begin with.

No, it was constructed for the wealthy banker and industrialist, Stepan Ryabushinsky, who among other things started the first car factory in Russia. This was rebranded after the revolution as ZIL, the famous maker of Soviet cars, jeeps, tractors, trucks and so on. It’s been knocked down now, and is being turned into a cultural centre. Very Post Soviet Moscow.

But the name more properly associated with the house is Fyodor Shekhtel, the architect, who had a number of Art Nouveau projects on the go in the 1900s. Most of these now belong to embassies so are hard to get inside.

He also dabbled in some rather fabulous theatre costume designs. As you do.

The Shekhtel House, then, is thoroughly Style Modern from top to bottom, with the possible exception of the hidden Russian Orthodox chapel at the top. Not because Gorky turned out to be a secret Christian in an atheist communist world, but because the Ryabushinsky family were Old Believers, a version of Orthodoxy that was frowned upon in Russia, well before the Revolution.

Secret Orthodox Old Believers chapel at the Ryabushinsky Mansion Moscow

Mama sold Art Nouveau to us by explaining that that artists of this persuasion tried to do is take the natural world, plants, flowers and ANIMALS as their inspiration. She sold a visit to the Ryabushinsky Mansion to us with the challenge of trying to spot as many of these little details as we went round as possible.

This turned out to be a very fruitful pastime. There are animals (and plants) in the mouldings, the lintels, the wall and door panels, in the stained glass windows, as well as tiled areas on the outside.

Th window frames are particularly fascinating. To Mama (no animals for us).

Art Nouveau window at the Shekhtel House in Moscow

But when we were chatting to the cloakroom attendant at the end of our tour, and she had got out the big Shekhtel book to show us more of the animal theatre costumes than were displayed on the walls, she also quizzed us on what we had spotted in the house.

Turns out there are more animals than even my Animal Obsessed Big Brother had imagined possible, even though he had to hang around for quite a long time looking for them while Mama tried to get the perfect photo of the staircase.

Now we know where more are to be found, we will have to go back. Don’t make the same mistake. There is an owl here. Can you see it?

Art Nouveau owl window at the Shekhtel House in Moscow

Anyway. The Ryabushinsky/ Shekhtal mansion is a pretty fabulous one by anyone’s standards, and that’s before you are told it was designed with air conditioning and spot lighting. And the fact that Maxim Gorky was given it moved Mama to perhaps think that she had better find out what the actual deal with was him after all.

‘Gorky’ is the Russian word for ‘bitter’ and is not his original name, which was Alexey Maximovich Peshkov.

It turns out that Gorky grew up in difficult circumstances in Nizhney Novgorod, very nearly committing suicide around the age of twenty. Experiences arising from this childhood as well as extensive travel on foot around the Russian Empire led him into writing vividly angry journalism, vividly angry novels, vividly angry short stories, vividly angry plays and vividly angry essays of gritty social realism about the harsh realities of being poor or marginalised in Tsarist Russia in the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th .

A very sobering contrast to the life of a cultured and fabulously rich merchant able to commission elegant harmonious living spaces from brilliant architects and contemplate the universe from his religious hidey hole in peace.

Door at the Shekhtel House in Moscow

In fact, Mama says as a writer and social commentator he was Charles Dickens on crack. Especially as he spent the (failed) 1905 revolution attempt in St Petersburg constructing home made bombs in some random apartment with a whole bunch of very energetic Marxists. After which he was exiled.

And went to Capri.

Anyway. It was actually Gorky’s pre-revolutionary writings and activities that make him a hero of the Soviet Union, what with the favourable publicity and support that they brought to the cause when they went viral around the world. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature five times.

Obviously he knew Lenin. He wasn’t, apparently, very impressed by Lenin, which is another point in his favour, says Mama, who is also not a Vladimir Ilyich Lenin fan. Although he did agree to front a Bolshevik fundraising drive in America at one point. In the end this was somewhat stymied by him taking along his girlfriend, rather than his actual wife, for the duration. The Americans were not, by and large, impressed by this, despite having much more time for his writing than you would expect given how thoroughly freaked out they seem to be if anyone mentions the phrase ‘socialised medicine’ today.

Mama also says.

Mama is in a decidedly spiky mood today, I see.

Mama also notes that Maxim Gorky seems to have a thing for interesting women, which is probably the best thing about him. His wife, Ekaterina Peshkova, worked tirelessly to advocate for artists, writers and so on caught up first in repressions of Tsarism, work she continued, vigourously, in communist times as one of the most effective members of the Political Prisoners Relief organisation.

And one of his later girlfriends was Moura Budberg. Who was a Soviet/ British double agent. After ending her association with Gorky, she ended up in England, where she repeatedly refused to marry HG Wells, of allegorical time travelling fame. She is also, incidentally, the Half Great (Great?) Aunt of Nick Clegg, which is possibly taking six degrees of separation a bit far, but still amusing to Mama.

What with one thing and another (Lenin didn’t like him any more than he liked Lenin), after the actual revolution, Gorky left and went to Sorrento, along a fairly large household of girlfriends, his ex wife and his children, adopted and otherwise. The reason why he ended up back in Russia again is a bit unclear. Mama, who cannot entirely shake her initial bad impression of Gorky, thinks it is either because he ran out of money, revolutionary writings now being less popular around the world once revolutionary reality had engulfed Russia and the surrounding area, or because he wanted to experience first hand some of the adulation he was nevertheless still getting inside the USSR (being conveniently out of the way).

Possibly both.

He certainly got a very cushy number in the Ryabushinsky Mansion, but his return was definitely also a propaganda coup for the communist regime. It seems he was expected to act, as president of the Union of Soviet Writers, as a sort of cultural ambassador and host to writers and so on from abroad, with the magnificent Art Nouveau staircase and so on as a backdrop. So perhaps one shouldn’t see it as entirely a gift without strings attached. Especially as there is also a suggestion that, along with most of the rest of the Soviet Union inhabitants, fear of what might happen to loved ones, including his children, effectively constrained him from the outspoken criticism of a repressive regime that had characterised his early life.

Here is his place at the table set up with tea things.

Tea set out for Gorky at the Gorky House Museum in Moscow Russia

He himself actually complained that the house was too grand.

Here is his bed.

Gorky's Bed at the Ryabushinsky Mansion Gorky House Museum Moscow Russia

He also said that he was continually watched.

Hence his behaviour, it is said, with regard to the canal and the
Solovetsky Islands .

Sigh, says Mama, who is not one of those people who goes around saying, deludedly, ‘if I lived at the time then I would have DONE SOMETHING’ from the perspective of a comfortable middle class lifestyle.

And Gorky only actually lived for four years after his return the the USSR, dying in 1938 at the age of 68. His son died before him. Rumours that one or both of them were purposefully killed abound. Naturally.

So, it might be better after all to focus on the interior of the house rather than the details of Gorky’s life, and thank our lucky stars that Shekhtel’s architectural masterpiece was, for whatever reason, preserved.

At one point before Gorky moved in, for example, Gorky’s house was a kindergarten. An experimental kindergarten.

!!!!!!!???????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????? Says Mama, worried about her staircase.

Whhhhhheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Say I, and my Obsessed Big Brother has just gone green with envy.

Among the preservees, says Mama, who is clearly determined to cram every last little tidbit of information she knows about this building into this review, was Nadezhda Peshkova, a painter and Gorky’s son’s widow. She lived in the house until 1965 and was then instrumental in having it turned into the Gorky House Museum.

That said, there is a certain lack of fine detail in some of the restoration. Russia, Mama says, is clearly not very used to actually having anything left to preserve and restore, so they do not seem to be doing a very good job of it. Rebuilding whole palaces from scratch in Kolomenskoye and Tsaritsyno parks is really not quite the same. Told you she was in a funny mood.

Still.

The staircase, in particular is TOTALLY worth it.

Art Nouveau staircase at the Shekhtel House where Gorky lived Moscow

Although we really preferred the jellyfish lamp.

And if you go up the stairs and look down, be sure to notice the turtle styling from above, this being another of the little secrets given to us by our connection in the cloakroom.

More information

The Memorial House Museum of Maxim Gorky’s official website.

Address: 6/2 Malaya Nikitskaya, just up from Tverskoi Boulevard, and across the road from the very church where Alexander Pushkin got married to the most beautiful woman in Russia.

Opening: Wednesday to Sunday, 11am to 5.30pm. Every third Thursday in the month Gorky’s house is also closed.

Admission: Adults are 300 roubles, kids are 100 roubles and if you are very obviously foreign like Mama you pay 400 roubles. Don’t forget to add the photo pass for 100 roubles.

Getting there: The nearest metro stations are probably the three connected ones of Pushkinskaya (purple line), Chekovskaya (grey line) and Tverskaya (green line), although see also Arbatskaya (both blue lines) and their connectiong stations on the red and grey lines, and also Barrikadnaya/ Krasnopresnehskaya (purple/ brown lines). It’s a good ten to fifteen minutes walk from any of these.

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The main reason to visit the Gorky House Museum Moscow, otherwise known as the Ryabushinsky Mansion, is the fabulous staircase. And the jellyfish lamp.
The main reason to visit the Gorky House Museum Moscow, otherwise known as the Ryabushinsky Mansion, is the fabulous staircase. And the jellyfish lamp

What to do in Kolomna, Russia in a snowstorm

Our visit to the town of Kolomna in the Moscow region is an object lesson in why you should pay attention to your surroundings in an unfamiliar place, as well as keep your mobile in the back pocket of your jeans and not an outer area of your coat when it is minus 15 degrees.

Because at some point Mama got separated from her party and found herself in the middle of the biggest snowstorm in seventy years in the dark with no clear idea of the direction she should be going in. And her phone had died from the cold.

Kolomna near Moscow in Russia

She could have retraced her steps – we are not talking serious levels of peril here. Mama is not that kind of travel blogger. But she was tired, and was also attempting one of those complicated parental manoeuvres where you and your Significant Other swap over which child you are looking after in the middle of an excursion. Tracking back down my Oblivious Big Brother, happily scoffing pancakes in the warmth of a cafe, would have meant this relay would not have happened.

So she asked the first person she saw for help.

Now the problem with asking a local for help is that they don’t know the name of the hotels.

And although Mama had previously clocked with amusement it was on a street with a very typical name for a street in a town in Russia, she couldn’t at that moment remember what that was. Lev Tolstovo Ulitsa? Leninskaya? Pushkinskaya? Unfortunately, all of these also exist in Kolomna, so this insight was not helpful.

Locals also don’t necessarily know the location of every random museum Mama might have happened to visit nearby to where she was staying. And saying to someone ‘it’s on the street with the really attractive houses’ is really not a helpful thing to say in Kolomna. At all.

Kolomna Streets in Russia

But luckily ‘it’s next door to the McDonald’s’ is. Thus, Mama was escorted ten minutes out of the Russian man’s way back to the street Oktyabreskaya Revolutsia, and was able to successfully take over supervision of my pig-headed determined effort to lounge around at the Hotel Kolomna rather than engage in tourism.

Mama thinks I have watched too many episodes of the (admittedly excellent) travel show Oryol i Ryeshka (Heads or Tails), in which one presenter gets to experience a destination in luxury and the other has 100 dollars to spend for three days. I was distinctly more interested in exploring the facilities in our accommodation for the whole of our first day, and decidedly frustrated every time we didn’t get further than the lobby before sauntering back out again to visit some other attraction. Eventually I flatly refused to go anywhere else.

Which is how Mama and Papa came to be at opposite ends of the town in the first place.

Well, to be fair, it was very cold, and a free excursion courtesy of the hotel didn’t really sound that interesting. Mama begs to differ though as she found out quite a lot about the history of Kolomna.

The history of Kolomna and its kremlin

Kolomna is directly south of Moscow and on the Moscow River, and thus of some strategic importance in Moscow’s long struggle for dominance in the area. It was officially first recorded as existing in the 12th Century.

There’s a socking big statue of Dimitry Donskoi outside one of the remaining walls which commemorates the time he gathered his troops in Kolomna before marching actually some considerable way away to have the battle of Kulikovo in 1380. Which he won, and although it’s one of those victories which has definitely grown in the telling, in the Russia origin story it marks a sort of turning point both in the decline of the power of the Mongols in the area, and also in Moscow beginning to claw its way up, in a sea of competing small Eastern states.

Russian armour

Worth a statue, then. Not that Mama has a photo of it because at that moment in the tour she had lost the feeling in her toes and was wondering if perhaps I hadn’t made the right choice after all.

The Kolomna kremlin is also worth gawping at as it eventually graduated from being a wooden construction to more durable walls a bit more than a hundred years or so later, some of which still remain. Quite impressively.

‘Kremlin’ being, you understand, the Russian word for fortress, not something special to Moscow. There’s a whole set of them scattered along the border of medieval Moscow’s influence, mainly as a protection against the raids of Crimean Tarters.

Kremlin walls and tower in Kolomna

The next big skirmish Kolomna was involved in was during the Time of Troubles in the 16th Century, when the succession to the throne was contested by a succession of False Dmitrys pretending to be the son of Ivan the Terrible (the name is a clue that they did not, in the end, win the argument). Maria Mniszech, who was, optimistically, married to both of them, took Kolomna during the fight and harried Moscow from there, until she herself was captured and imprisoned in one of the towers that is still standing. Today it still bears her name. And, apparently, her ghost.

Marinskaya Tower Kolomna

The kremlin walls are incomplete now, not because of their failure to keep anyone out, but because during the 18th and 19th centuries the building materials were re-purposed by Kolomna inhabitants for other things. But as well as some walls, there is a gatehouse and those towers to admire, and you can tour the top of the walls too if you join the right excursion.

Gatehouse front and back in Kolomna Russia

There are a number of churches and monasteries inside the kremlin territory or scattered around the town. So if you are into your Orthodox ecclesiastical architecture, Kolomna is a great place to visit.

Monastery in Kolomna Russia

Churches inside the Kremlin In Kolomna Russia
Yellow Russian orthodox church
Church of St Nicholas Posadsky in Kolomna Russia

Mama would like to draw your attention particularly to this church, Krestovozdvizhensky Cathedral, and especially to the splindly red and white towers you see surrounding it. Look familiar? They should if your read our blog as they are by the same architect who was responsible for the Gothic gingerbread palace for Catherine the Great in Tsaritsyno in Moscow (not that Catherine appreciated it).

Krestovozdvizhensky Cathedral inside the Kremlin in Kolomna Russia

Mama, however, was more interested in the wooden village style houses.

Wooden house at night in Kolomna Russia

Many of which have gone full on quaint, especially if they are near to or inside the kremlin.

Wooden houses in Russia

Of course, pausing to take another photo every few minutes probably didn’t help the problem she had keeping up with the Russians in her party. Mama is unclear if she is just terminally unfit or has not yet developed enough of an irritation with wading through ankle deep snow to have worked out the best way to do it.

Wooden Houses in Kolomna near Moscow in Russia

Museums in Kolomna and other attractions

Aside from photography there are a number of museums to choose from when you visit Kolomna.

We went to the main Kolomna history museum, which started off in prehistoric times and the natural world and worked its way up from there, as small local museums are wont to do.

Mama has clearly been in Russia too long – she no longer finds the idea of bears, wolves and so on particularly exotic as part of the local wildlife scene. But she did get quite excited by this odd looking creature. It’s a wolverine, apparently.

Wolverine

Anyway, aside from walls, what Kolomna is mostly known for is industrialism, so there are a number of exhibits about that, especially the locomotive factory.

Mama was more distracted by trying to take a photo of the model of the centre of town from every conceivable angle – she was determined never to get lost when visiting Kolomna again – and by the discovery of an English grandfather clock. This shot shows where she was standing while taking the two kremlin wall pictures above. The haunted tower is on the right.

Model of the Kolomna kremlin

That said, what they do not seem to make much of in the museum is the reason why Kolomna is still not officially on the list of Golden Ring towns – the recommended list of places in the Moscow region which tourists might like to go and visit if they fancy a few days away from the capital. Despite it being super pretty and relatively convenient to get to.

This is that it was a closed town until 1994.

Closed towns were the ones which had some kind of strategic military importance, and so there were restrictions on foreigners visiting.

The strategic importance of Kolomna were the armament factories.

This history is hinted in the Museum of Military Glory (fabulous name. Mama says, dubiously). Observe the diorama of shell making!

Armaments factory worker USSR

The museum is small, but the guide was enthusiastic about pointing out the equal participation of women in the death and destruction industry in the Soviet Union generally, and the Great Patriotic War (World War Two) in particular. Hurrah!

It is also one of those museums that takes a personal approach to history, with most of the exhibits being illustrated by pictures, stories and artefacts of real Kolomna natives and residents.

Mama was particularly determined to draw my attention to the photo and letters of one of the Night Witches. This was a squadron of lady bomber pilots, fabulously nicknamed by the enemy as somehow it was much much worse to be killed by females than by your regular Red Army fly boys. Kolomna has an aerodrome nearby, and the flying club attached to it has a long and venerable history. Currently it has a reputation for being a particularly good place to go and learn about parachute jumping and sky diving. If you are that way inclined.

The Night Witches

This is one of the first instructors at the aerodrome.

Female flying instructor Kolomna aerodrome

Of the other places of interest available on your Kolomna visit, the one that was enthusiastically mentioned as a top attraction by everyone Mama spoke to about her trip is the Pastila Factory Museum. Pastila is a fruit sweet, and the museum is very well worth the fuss, being interactive, immersive and ending with a guided pastila tasting and tea. We all echo the recommendation therefore. Here is what we wrote about it in more detail.

Demonstrating how to make traditional Russian fruit pastille sweets

And then there’s the museum to the life and times of the local writer, Ivan Ivanovich Lazhechnikov, who in theory is famous for being one of the first writers of historical fiction in Russia (think Walter Scott).

However, because finding a connection to Alexander Sergevich Pushkin, the (greatest) poet (who evah lived), is a national obsession, much is also made of the fact that he also saved Pushkin from a duel by getting the other guy to apologise.

Bust of the writer Lazhechnikov

But didn’t Pushkin die in a duel, I hear your cry? Yes, indeed he did. Just not this one. Clearly toxic masculinity is not a new phenomenon.

The museum is mostly just a collection of odds and ends and a few dressed up dummies in Lazhechnikov ’s reconstructed family home, and Mama did not, if she is absolutely honest, find it all that interesting. But it does have some nice furniture and she has made a mental note to see if there are any translations of the great man’s works.

Books by the writer Lazhechnikov

Other museums that caught our eye were the one about a type of gramophone, the one about life on a communal farm, and also the ones more dedicated to crafts such as soap making, and honey production. Also with very tempting shops attached.

Soap museum and shop in Kolomna

If all of this history, culture, boutique shopping or parachuting palls, you can check out the fancy new sports centre, which is mainly there to house a top of the range speed skating rink. Even if you are not into speed skating, you can hire skates and whiz round the rink in the comfort of indoors.

Ice rink in Kolomna Russia

Or you can do what my Oblivious Big Brother particularly enjoyed, and slide on your tummy down the moat of the kremlin walls. Over and over again. At least someone enjoyed the snow.

There are also a number of pleasant cafes and eateries dotted about, in addition to the MacDonald’s.

But what about the hotel, I hear you cry? Did it live up to my expectations?

Hotel Kolomna

In Mama’s view the Hotel Kolomna was a perfectly respectable three star hotel. The communal areas were pleasant, and they have such facilities as their own gym, restaurant and cafe.

The rooms included sturdy examples of the sort of furniture you usually find in hotel rooms. The beds were comfortable, the en suite bathrooms were fully equipped, and the carpets were thick. Everything was clean.

Hotel Kolomna in Kolomna n

Check in was smoothly accomplished, and reception was able to lend Mama a charger to revive her dead phone, which she was particularly happy about.

Hotel Kolomna was, in short, a bit better than some of the motel chain hotels she has experienced in the UK and decidedly less grubby and with better fitting windows than a couple of the B&Bs. Also, being a pretty large hotel building and able to do economy of scale, it was also cheaper, especially off peak in a blizzard.

Mama isn’t sure how good anyone’s English is, but she can definitively say they didn’t have any trouble coping with her wayward Russian, which is a good sign. And all of the information, hotel services, rules, general information, comes in English as well as Russian as standard. So they can probably manage foreigners.

In short, Mama quite recommends it, especially as it is within a reasonably short amble of the pretty bits of Kolomna and the station.

On Oktyabreskaya Revolutsia street. Remember this. It might come in handy.

Obviously, other hotels, hostels and sleeping arrangements are available. Not that you absolutely need to make an overnight stay of it.

Getting there

Getting to Kolomna to experience all of these things is simplicity in itself even if you do not have a car as there are regular trains from Komsomolskaya station. You can get the basic local train, the electrichka, which will have hard benches to sit on and stop in more places, or the express, which shaves only a few minutes of the approximately two hour journey, but will definitely have better seats and free wifi as well as a refreshment trolley.

So you should definitely visit Kolomna. Mama thought that the off season in winter was a perfectly reasonable time to go, especially if you like to photograph wooden houses in a layer of freshly laid snow, but doubtless Kolomna will be equally as pretty in full summer. And there will be all sorts of festival-type celebrations for major holidays such as New Year, Maslenitsa, Easter or the May holidays too.

More information

The Hotel Kolomna’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Night Witches, Russian combat pilots of World War Two.

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Kolomna is a town about two hours from Moscow, Russia. It has history, a kremlin, traditional wooden buildings, museums, sky diving and a sweet factory.
Suitcases and Sandcastles

Maslenitsa, the why, how and where of pancake week in Moscow, Russia

So here we are again at the end of Maslenitsa, or (variously) Shrovetide, Butterweek, Pancake Week, or Cheesefare Week, depending on who is trying to explain/ translate the phenomenon.

Making blini pancakes for Maslenitsa

And YES, I KNOW that the west is probably making their pancakes on a different date, only for one day, and that Lent starts straight after on a Wednesday. Not only is there a difference between the Orthodox church’s calendar and everybody else’s to account for when Easter falls, but there is also a difference in the way it counts Lent.

Now Mama has, over the years, gotten used to the idea that she is going to be making or eating pancakes, or rather Russian pancakes called blini, for a whole week rather than just the one evening.

She has, at various times, found herself planning whole feasts involving just the one basic dish and as many things to put into them as Pinterest can imagine, competing in competitive blini making with actual Slavs, trying to fend off her mother in law when she pops round with approximately 42 000 blini that need to be eaten now so she can make 84 000 fresh tomorrow, trying to get the Russians around her to appreciate a squirt of lemon and a sprinkling of sugar as a filling despite the fact that for some reason this is the ONE thing Russians don’t seem to add to pancakes, and standing in windy London park in the drizzle with her Mother in Law, having a pancake themed picnic, the widest possible variety of fillings (including sweetened citrus), whist engaging in blini oneupmanship.

Games with pancakes in Russia

But she was nevertheless a bit taken aback when she returned to Moscow after ten years of living away, to find that Maslenitsa has now also achieved the status of determinedly celebrated revived folk festival. There is bunting. And everything.

Maslenitsa street theatre in Moscow Russia

Of course, Mama is obviously no stranger to bonkers traditional practices.

She has to explain Guy Fawkes Night to foreigners every year after all, a conversation that goes something like this: yes, we do burn a puppet of a man, seemingly alive, to celebrate the time we dragged him through the streets behind a well fed horse, hanged him to almost dead, cut his genitals off, disemboweled his living body, and then cut him into four pieces and sent him to different part of the country as a warning to others. You can make your own guy! Well, children used to anyway. And then they went round the streets begging for money with it! We also set off fireworks. It’s a family holiday! You should definitely go to one of the displays. There’s a village in the south of England that chucks politicians and celebrities on the fire! It’s very cool, they even have burning crosses and everything. Why? Oh, well it was essentially an anti Catholic holiday, so probably that. But we’ve stopped burning effigies of the pope now even though they still have banners saying Down with Popery, so you should be OK.

And it’s not like living through a Russian winter doesn’t beg for a bit of celebration when it is coming to an end.

Bring back the sun to Russia

Or rather the beginning of the end of winter because anyone sending Mama photos of snowdrops, crocuses, green grass and themselves enjoying the fresh smells of spring in a light anorak on Shrove Tuesday will get short shift as she marches through the likely blizzard. Actual spring is a good month off yet. Possibly two, depending on when Maslensitsa is this year

Maslenitsa sun arch VDNKh Moscow

I, for one, am all for the aggressive dismissal of the snow after a number of winter seasons. Scientific reason may have made us more certain that there is summer and 35 degrees centigrade round the corner, and admittedly this sort of thing is usually done by actual non-Christian participants a bit closer to the event at the spring equinox, but it’s not like there isn’t precedent for mucking about with religious rites according to the whims and obsessions of the age.

Especially as, who knows, in a short time, all this may be less certain, what with global warming and all. Perhaps pacifying the old gods is not such a silly idea after all.

Pagan costumes for Maslenitsa Russia

Thus the round, slightly golden and glistening blinis become sun symbols, just as the were, apparently, at sun encouragement festivals of the past. The effigy constructed at the beginning of the week and burnt at the end to remove bad things from the world, is said to represent Lady Maslenitsa, or the death/ rebirth wintertime goddess Marena, depending on just how pagan you want to get. In central Europe she is drowned (or burned and then drowned, which all sounds a bit 17th century to Mama), but the similarities are there.

Lady Maslenitsa near Red Square Moscow

Of course, some people will tell you that pancakes are all about using up food before the Christian Lenten fast. This was something that confused small Mama a lot on 1970s Britain. I mean, yes, fasting, but quite what was so fabulous about eggs, flour and butter she was not sure. As compared to, I dunno, meat, biscuits and apples.

But the Eastern Orthodox fast, unlike the modern day Anglican one, is strict and effectively turns observers vegan. But not at once. In preparation for the full fast, the week of Maslenitsa is supposed to be meat free. But eggs, butter and oil can still be eaten. See? Pancakes now make sense!

Interestingly, along with dubiously resurrected pre-Christian rituals, the other thing that has made a resurgence in post-Soviet Russia is the observance of Lent. It’s a very dry January sort of impulse, as far as Mama can tell, and not particularly related to how religious a person actually is but following the fierce dietary requirements of the fast is definitely a thing. So coming to Russia in this period if you are vegan is something to seriously consider as restaurants have special alternate Lenten menus at this time which should cater to your every need.

Goast costume for Maslenitsa

Of course, Mama, as a professional manipulator of people, admires the fasting system as a means not only of purifying your soul, but as a way of getting a population of freedom deficient serfs through times of scarcity and harsh climate conditions.

Which brings us to the final point of Maslenitsa, and that is social engineering.

Fasting in the Eastern Orthodox church is not just for Lent, but a pretty year round thing. It is noticeable that there is a continual waxing and waning of quite how extreme you are supposed to go. Mama is particularly impressed by the very careful leavening of the longest 40 day fast by the occasional allowance of the odd bit of butter every second Sunday (or something), which she considers a particularly masterful understanding of human nature’s inability to keep up a hair shirt mentality for too long.

Goat costumes for Maslenitsa Russia

Or perhaps that a society built along rigidly prescriptive lines with no let up is not such a desirable thing.

It does mean that Eastern Orthodox Lent has to be longer to meet the 40 days requirement. Which is why even when Maslenitsa falls the same time as Pancake Day, Easter does not. Yes, despite knowing the reason for this, it does make Mama’s head hurt at times.

The week of Maslenitsa itself, in fact, was itself an exercise in society-approved letting off steam, celebration and general joie de vivre. Just as Christmas, Easter and other random holidays were and, frankly, are today.

Russian folk music

So each day had its own brand of ritualised bonding opportunities for people stuck living together in small right knit rural communities. Or ritualised anti-neighbour aggression in the case of the bare knuckle fighting (300 dead on one historically memorable year in Moscow. Puts the argument over who borrowed whose lawnmower firmly into perspective). Much is made of the need for mothers in law to entertain sons in law to blini and vice versa. And sisters in law also have to spend time together and attempt to get along. And there is a whole Sunday of asking for forgiveness.

There is also the day when young men are allowed to kiss any girl they fancy, so let’s just take a moment to disapprove of that and feel superior to our neanderthal forebears.

Russian folk costume

However, the idea behind it is clearly to have a socially approved relaxation of the normal rules of fratinisation (don’t) in order to facilitate moves towards marriage as soon as Lent and Easter are over (obviously one does not get married in Lent. What would one eat?).

Mama applauds, in fact, the idea that there is some kind of need to actually gain the female half of the partnership’s acceptance of your decision to wed her and some time period for her to think it over. And also notes that the narrative of men being instigators and women passive accepters of passion is not a thought process which has moved on as much as you might expect in the last 500 years or so.

Not that she thinks it’s an appropriate tradition to resurrect today. And to be fair, nobody seems to be suggesting it, or the fist fighting, or live bear-related festive theatre. Or importing Granny so Papa can stuff her with pancakes.

Although there is this.

Maslenitsa games in Moscow Russia

And this.

Tug of war

Moscow city government sponsored fun, big and small, therefore is definitely well within the spirit of the holiday, even if it generally starts the weekend before Maslenitsa proper and reaches a culmination in the final Saturday and Sunday, to fit with a more modern working life pattern.

Fairly reliable places to find things happening will be Tverskaya Street and Manedzh Square, just off Red Square. Or VDNH, the Soviet and now Post-Soviet exhibition space. Kolomonskoye Park in the south will have something on, as might Gorky Park, and the Slavic theme park of the Ismailovo Kremlin.

You can also go outside Moscow, and Mama thinks Maslenitsa tourism might be a growing thing. Everyone loves a good bonfire, amirite?

Bonfire for Maslenitsa Russia

Expect street theatre, and lots of people dressed up in traditional outfits, something faintly pagan, or with folk overtones.

Street theatre for Maslenitsa in Moscow

There will almost certainly be live music. And games. Also hands on activities with villager overtones for the urbanites to dabble in. Mama never thought she’d be standing in a queue to wait to have a go at sawing wood, but then it happened.

Wood sawing competition

Masterclasses will involve paint, with a reckless disregard for the messiness I am fully capable of bringing to such activities. Increasingly, a Marena, Lady Maslenitsa building competition may be happening.

Lady Maslenitsa Russia

And of course, you will be able to get blini. This year my Intrepid Big Brother tried pine cone jam in his, which he recommends, although Mama notes that anything smelling strongly of pine is mostly reminiscent of the stuff you use to clear the bathroom with.

Pine cone jam Siberian pancakes with pine nuts

And on the Sunday, or possibly Saturday, because never let tradition get in the way of a well scheduled event, we watch the winterwoman go in in flames. Well, you can. Mama thinks that the One True Bonfire is that lit on 5th November and has not got up the enthusiasm to track that part of the festivities down yet.

But if you are lucky, you might catch some other fire related show. This, says Mama, is what we should contemplate doing as our Saturday job in a few years. She just shelved books in a library and pulled pints in a haunted pub. We are less keen currently, but it was a pretty thrilling end to our Maslenitsa weekend.

Fire show in Moscow Russia

Happy blini hunting, and a safe and purified journey into Easter.

More information

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and Mama) has to say about making blini (and tvorog) without mucking about with yeast or whisking egg whites.

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Why Russians eat pancakes for a whole week at Maslenitsa in the run up to Lent, what else they do, and where in Moscow they do it

A sweet treat at the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum in Russia

One of the things everyone recommends when you say you are about to visit Kolomna in Russia is a look around the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum. Which does not initially seem like and incentive to get on a train and travel for two hours out of Moscow.

Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum in Russia

But then you find out that pastila is a type of sweet.

Pastila is, in fact, the same sort of sweet as a (Rowntrees) fruit pastille. Name a bit of a give away there. Except pastila is a lot softer, a bit more gourmet, with more variation in the different types. And originally at least, a lot less mass produced.

In French, they call it Pate de Fruit. Immediately makes it sound even more enticing, non?

Essentially, for those who have never considered how their fruit pastilles are made, to get pastila you concoct a fruit puree and then allow it to turn into something jellylike.

Examples of Russian fruit pastille sweets at the Kolomna Pastila Museum

Apples are involved, partly because Kolomna seems to have been particularly abundant in apple orchards, and partly because they are a good source of the setting agent pectin. But other berries and soft fruits can be used too. Mama particularly likes the blackcurrant flavoured ones.

But then the makers of Kolomna pastila started to get fancy. And not just because pastila was often made with honey in Kolomna. Honey was cheap. Sugar was not. That’s it. Honeyed pastila is tasty though.

No, classic Kolomna pastila was different from the French and English versions because the addition of eggwhites to the puree and a long drying process in the traditional Russian clay oven added a certain marshmallowy quality to the sweet. Which became beloved of the Imperial court on down.

Adding eggs to the Pastila puree

Shame the original historical recipe got lost somewhere between the revolution upending everything, including, for some reason, the apple orchards. And the attempt to produce pastila as an fully industrial process did not go as well as hoped either. Still, they seem to have got it mostly worked out again now.

This doesn’t quite explain the popularity of the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum, however.

Even though everyone is careful to tell you they will serve you tea and conduct a tasting session, Mama was bemused by the extreme enthusiasm she encountered from tourists and locals alike.

I mean, every cafe in Kolmna serves tea and pastila, and the museum itself has a particularly fabulous one next door to the main building. What could possibly be so gripping about a few glass cases and some explanatory placards?

Cafe at the Kolomna Pastile Factory Museum

But it turns out that the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum tour is much more than an exhibit-ridden succession of rooms enhanced by fifteen minutes of a guide droning in front of each one.

No, it is an interactive, immersive experience in which the history of pastila making in Kolomna, the cooking process, and all the different types of pastila are demonstrated by costumed actors playing out various roles of 19th century cottage industry workers.

Demonstrating how to make traditional Russian fruit pastille sweets

And also the factory owner and his wife.

Tea party hostess at the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum Russia

Even the embedded advertisement for all the related products sold by the Pastila Factory Museum shop (fruit syrup, herbal tea, jam, and preserved fruit, in case you are wondering) is exuberantly done. And Baba Yaga herself has a cameo appearance.

Baba Yaga makes a surprise appearance

You get to make your own pastila, from washing and coring the apples, through stirring the puree, to sticking the pastille on a hook to allow it to be dipped in syrup and hardened.

You also get to visit the cellar full of apples. The smell alone was worth the price of admission.

Apple cellar in the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum

Mama and Papa seriously considered locking my Appleloving Big Brother in there and coming back in a few hours to see who had won. Particularly as he was having a bit of a sulk at the beginning of the tour over a clash between Mama’s desire to photograph all the very attractive Kolomna buildings, churches and houses, and his desire to go and slide around in the record amounts of snow that had fallen that weekend.

He had thoroughly cheered up by the end though.

We did both also score an apple to munch as we went round the rest of the tour of the Kolomna Pastila Museum though and I must say that every museum tour should consider this method of keeping their young visitors happy, as well as ending with a sweet tasting.

If you are dithering about which Kolomna pastila museum to choose (there are two), or whether to go to a pastila museum at all, we heartily recommend this one. One word of warning – the tours are all run in Russian. But you can find yourself a guide to translate without too much difficulty, if you are not able to nudge your children sharply at significant moments and demand key words. Like Mama. Ow.

Actor on the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum Tour

If you cannot make it out of Moscow to Kolomna yourself, then the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum has a shop actually in Moscow, near Smolenskaya, and is available to order goodies from online.

And if you are not planning to visit Russia at all (really???) here are two recipes Mama is planning to follow to make her own – one for the denser fruit pastille-esque stuff, which will probably be most familiar to Mama’s UK readers, and a more Russian version involving 10 hours in an oven.

My family spent two days in Kolomna, so if you want to visit Kolomna, here is a fairly comprehensive guide to what you can do.

More information

The Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum website (make sure you have the right one).

The Kolomna sweet shop in Moscow.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about apple bobbing.

Address: 4 Ulitsa Polyanskaya, Kolomna, Russia, 140415

Opening: 10am to 8pm (on a tour).

Admission: Different tour packages at different times of the year cost different prices, which start at around 400 roubles for adults and 200 roubles for kids.

Getting there: Kolomna is about a tour hour journey from Moscow by train from the Komsomolskaya station. You can drive too. Kolomna is dead south from Moscow.

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Find out why everyone recommended the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum when we said that we were visiting Kolomna, a picturesque town near Moscow, Russia.

The Moscow New Year Street Party on Tverskaya

‘What, again?’ said my Jaded Big Brother when Mama suggested going into the centre of Moscow to see what was occurring at the Moscow New Year street party at the beginning of January.

By this time we had already thoroughly investigated the winter sports theme on Tverskoi Boulevard. We had wandered down the Arbat, and across Manedzh and Red Square to admire the lights.

We had seen the fairytale arches outside the Bolshoi and walked up Nikolskaya Street to the particularly fabulous set of trees on Lubyanka. We had even been inside Detskiy Mir and GUM, and eaten the obligatory ice cream in each.

What was left?

Well, New Year being the biggest holiday of the year in Russia, a three-day street festival, starting on 31st December and ending on 2nd January. Tverskaya Street, the road leading down to Red Square, was closed off. Stages and other decorative items were erected. Interactive opportunities were dreamed up.

Kremlin and Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

Which of course was alongside all the existing stalls and festive lights which were part of the ongoing New Year (and Christmas) celebrations in Moscow.

Mama caught some of the preparations. This tree, and there were a number of them up and down the street, took all day to decorate. Much to Mama’s amusement, the whole operation was enacted by men, but organised by a woman shouting at them through a megaphone. She felt that this was an art installation of unsurpassed satirical accuracy.

Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Festival

And it was all free.

We arrived towards evening, as Mama feels that enjoying winter festivals and their light shows should be done in the dark, if possible.

Of course, in Russia, in winter, that means about starting at about 4pm.

Things you can expect to find at the Moscow New Year street festival?

People wandering around on stilts. Which makes a lot of sense as you can see them above the crowds.

Stilt walkers Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

Groups of costumed dancers. You may or may not wish to join in with them. We saw angels. Or possibly snowflakes.

Dancing angels on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

Candy canes (not a Russian tradition as such, but hey). Plus band.

Band on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

And Mama’s personal favourite, cosmonauts (definitely something Russians get as much mileage out of as possible).

Dancing cosmonauts on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Festival

There were some chill out zones and covered pop up cafes.

Grotto on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow Journey into Christmas Festival
Warming up on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Festival

And stages. Not sure if early evening on the last day meant that the programming had run through all the obvious candidates already, but it turns out that Russian rockabilly is a thing. Mama enjoyed this band, Fire Granny, immensely, and insisted on bopping along.

Incidentally, it was snowing so hard you might actually be able to see it in the photos. This winter has been particularly good value for snowfall, and there is definitely something very fabulous about doing anything at New Year and Christmas accompanied by large fluffy snowflakes.

This did not make things easier for the tightrope walkers operating high above the street about half way down. Genuinely awesome, and they had even worked out how to make falling off part of the act. Luckily.

Tightrope walker on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow Journey into Christmas Festival

We also got a chance to try out tightrope walking for ourselves. Ably assisted by assistants to keep us on the ropes.

Tightrope walking on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

And thus we carried on our way, until we got to the real life hockey game at the bottom, and the people swaying gently back and forth on long sticks.

Ice Hockey on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party
Acrobats on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Festival

Hugely entertaining way to spend a few hours during the New Year holidays, and just goes to show why, if you want to spend New Year outside of your own country, you should definitely consider Moscow.

And for your convenience the whole festival is actually called ‘the Journey into Christmas’ because Christmas in Russia comes at the end of the winter holiday break on 7th January rather than the beginning. It’s good marketing for non-Russians, at least for those who arrive before December 25th, especially as many of the things Russians do for New Year, other countries do for Christmas.

Unicorn and Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

As for the Moscow New Year street party, Mama recommends starting at the top end, near Pushkinskaya Square. No particular reason, except that it’s downhill, and you can finish up at the fair on Red Square that way. Or go ice skating.

Either way, it’s definitely something we recommend if you are in town at the right time.

More information

This is the Moscow city government’s festival page (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about constructing the perfect playlist for a party.

Getting there: Pushkinskaya (purple line), Chekovskaya (grey line) or Tverskaya (green line) stations will drop you at the top of Tverskaya Street, and Okhotniy Ryad (red line), Ploshard Revolutsiy (dark blue line) and Teatralnaya (green line) stations will see you at the bottom.

Opening: The street party generally runs from 31st December to 2nd January, and the Journey into Christmas festival starts mid December and goes on until the second week in January.

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Queuing for Arkhip Kuindzhi at the Tretyakov Gallery

What should you wear outside in Moscow in winter? One of those niggling questions you might be asking yourself if you are planning to visit Russia in the months of December through February.

Elbus Arkhip Kuindzhi

Surprisingly, the answer is usually less than you expect.

Mama’s approach to cold in the UK is to layer up.

But Russians by and large do not layer up.

This is because inside is always very (very very very) warm, and so you would be continually putting on and taking off all of these extra jumpers and vests and the second pairs of tights.

What you actually need here is a large, thick overcoat, a hat, some gloves, a scarf and one fairly sturdy pair of boots with as non slip soles as you can find. That’s it. And then you are generally good, as long as you are wearing a little bit less than you would indoors in the winter in the UK underneath. Mama’s cardigan collection is sorely underused in Moscow. I am not joking about how hot it is inside.

Generally, that is, as long as mostly what you are doing is trotting briskly from your preferred mode of transport to the safety of an overheated building.

Every now and again, however, you might find yourself standing statically in a queue for an art exhibition for which you failed to buy tickets online before they sold out. At this point you will realise that this approach to dressing up is inadequate for forty five minutes in minus 10.

Or rather, you might not, but Mama did when she went to the Arkhip Kuindzhi exhibition at the Old Tretyakov Gallery recently. And forty five minutes was the absolute minimum wait, she calculates, as she got there 30 minutes before opening, and was one of the last people through the door for the first batch, after they had let in all the ticketed people who got their act together earlier than Mama.

Arkhip Kuindzhi exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

So, who is Arkhip Kuindzhi, you may be wondering, and is he worth all of this fuss?

Kuidzhi was born in was then called Mariupol in Ukraine in 1840. Or possibly 1842. Or 1841. Or even 1843. Nobody, including Arkhip, seems quite sure. There was a very large community of people with a Greek heritage in Mariupol, and Kuindzhi was not exception, although the name ‘Kuindzhi’ is nothing to do with this. It’s the equivalent to ignoring the fact that someone Welsh is called ‘Jones’ and using ‘thePost’ as an actual surname. It means ‘goldsmith’, which was the profession of his grandfather, but is from the Tartar language – also a big influence on the cultural make up of the area. Interestingly, Arkhip’s brother was also called ‘goldsmith’ but in a different language – Russian.

Multiculturalism is not a new invention. Mama says, pointedly. And neither is rocking it.

Arkhip Kuindzhi’s father was a not-at-all-well-off cobbler, and in any case died when Arkhip was very young. Which meant that Kuindzhi’s formal schooling was pretty minimal, and he did all sorts of jobs like animal herder, construction worker, domestic servant, artist’s paint mixer and photograph retoucher, before finally being accepted into a painting academy in Saint Petersburg in 1868.

He’s associated with the Wandering Artists, which also included friends he had met while studying and boarding in cheap lodgings like (the very fabulous) Ilya Repin. The Wanderers used their art to make biting social commentary and bring about social change through the medium of travelling round the country showing people paintings.

But Kuindzhi didn’t really do people, favouring landscapes instead. And he wasn’t a realist.

No, Kuindzhi’s style is best summed up by a comment from another great contemporary, the portraitist Ivan Kramskoi. Who is a bit of a fan boy or at least features prominently on the audio guide for the exhibition. This quote goes ‘I could spend hours boggling at the way the quality of light is absolutely perfect in this picture, my god, the light the light. But what the fuck is with the flat houses/ trees/ cows?’
Mama paraphrases.

Evening in Ukraine Arkhip Kuindzhi landscape painting

And also, it turns out, lacks the photography skills to really do this crucial aspect of Kuindzhi’s genius justice. Use your imagination a bit here, eh?

Anyway. Remember this is before the height of Art Nouveau, well before the Constructivists, and although he travelled in Europe and would have come across the Impressionists, Kuindzhi clearly had his own take on how to go about it. Came as a hell of a shock to his audience, it seems.

Cloud Arkhip Kuindzhi

Kuindzhi himself doesn’t have much to say about what he was up to, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that because he didn’t spend much time writing letters or diaries, it’s hard for current researchers to be sure. But he seems to have considered himself to be capturing the transcendental nature of existence.

And trees.

Tree sketches Arkhip Kuindzhi

Which explains why he wasn’t particularly interested in painting from life, but did pay a lot of attention to depicting the giant echoing horizons which contribute to the deep Slavic soul (sort of thing).

Steppe Arkhip Kuindzhi landscape painting

You may also have noticed Mama’s Chekov’s gun comment about his involvement in photography. Now Mama may be reaching a bit here (you may have noticed that Mama doesn’t actually know about art), but she does wonder how much all of that had to do with some of the effects he was going for.

She was struck by this sketch in particular, in which you may or may not be able to see that the foreground is very sharply painted and the background is completely defocused.

Arkhip Kuindzhi sketch

Kuindzhi, Mama thinks, would have liked Instagram and is a frustrated non owner of a DLSR and a whole bunch of lenses large and small. And what he could have done with filters and photoshop is probably the subject of some really colourful dreams.

And, yes, definitely, he was all about the light. This is absolutely one of Mama’s favourite paintings. Look at what he has done with the colours and guess what it’s called.

After the Rain Arkhip Kuindzhi landscape painting

After the Rain. And! It’s even better than this in real life! Isn’t that just perfect?

Which is more or less what everyone else thought at the time.

It is a source of great satisfaction to Mama that Arkhip Kuindzhi did not die poor. In fact, Arkhip Kuindzhi, in defiance of the usual starving artist too good for this world to pay attention to mundane things such as proper marketing, not doing drugs, or remembering that the bills need paying trope, died extremely rich. He made a fortune, in fact, not just from selling his extremely popular landscapes at very high prices, but also doing some adroit property speculation. Although it turns out that this may have been somewhat accidental. Initially.

His exhibitions were among the best attended ever (hahahahaha, say Mama’s cold feet. Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha). People spent hours in front of his distillations of summer alone.

Birch Grove Arkhip Kuindzhi landscape painting

Which is not to say that he also went around having his bathroom taps coated in gold paint or whatever it is that people do when they end up a millionaire after humble beginnings. No, he mostly lived very modestly, and even after having reached the height of his fame, took a job as a painting teacher, at which he was very good, or at least well liked.

Until he got sacked for taking part in a student’s strike, just to remind everyone of the incipient revolutionary rumblings of the time.

He also left most of his money to a charity set up before his death devoted to helping struggling artists.

Of course, he had a wife at this point. Mama wonders what she thought about being disinherited, but since she had gone along with this sort of behaviour for many years previously, Mama is going with ‘as eccentric on this issue as he was’, because Mama, as you can probably tell, rather likes Kuindzhi, and is definitely resisting the idea that he wasn’t as cool in his treatment of his wife is he was in other respects.

Vera Kuindzhi, just to give her more background than an appendage, translated a few of the famous chemist Dmitri Mendeleev’s works into French. And Mama likes to think that this may also be significant because some of what helped Arkhip achieve his striking lighting effects was being experimental with paint, not just the application of it, but its chemical composition.

The most famous example of this is the Moon over the Dnipper River. And variations on this theme, which the Kuindzhi exhibition has a reasonably large number of.

Moonlit Night on the Dneiper Arkhip Kuindzhi landscape painting

Luminous paint, anyone?

More epic queues resulted and it was sold for 5,000 roubles, which was a phenomenal amount of money for a painting at the time.

And yet what we are seeing is a poor version of what it originally looked like. The chemical composition of the paint did not hold – apparently the whole canvas glowed and was a lot lot brighter.

At this point Arkhip Kuindzhi exited the artistic stage for thirty years, for reasons no-one seems definitively sure about.

What he seems to have decided is that he could absolutely not top nailing the very essence of a shimmering moonlit night in paint, so he wouldn’t even try.

He still worked on his art quite a lot though. The theme of this era, apart from ‘pastel’, is looking down from above. Arkhip Kuindzhi was obsessed by flying. He was famous trying to get up high – he got into the property owning business because he wanted a particular studio on top of a building in Saint Petersburg, but the only way to get it was to buy the two buildings next door as well – and spent a lot of time perched in trees on his estate in the Crimea. Or swimming out to a rock and observing the natural world from there.

Thus you have paintings like Fog on the Sea.

 Arkhip Kuindzhi fog waves seascape painting

Although Mama’s favourite in this style is the one with the thistles.

Morning on the Dneiper Arkhip Kuindzhi landscape painting

All in all, if you are in Moscow before mid-February, Mama highly recommends taking part in the historical recreation of Arkhip Kuindzhi’s successful career and getting in the queue to see this very comprehensive showing of Arkhip Kuindzhi’s works.

If you cannot, luckily you can find the best known paintings hanging in the permanent collections in either the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, or the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg, so you’ll mostly only (only!) be missing out on seeing all the sketches, the different variations of the paintings all together, and the opportunity to stand in a room surrounded by glorious sunsets.

Sunset paintings Arkhip Kuindzhi

If all else fails, you can go to the Metropolitan Museum in the USA and see the one (1) painting of Kuindzhi’s there, the Red Sunset on the Dneiper.

And you should, you really should, do some (or all) of these things, because photos on the Internet really do not do justice to how very radiant the landscapes are.

Arkhip Kuindzhi, ladies and gentlemen. Marvellous hair. Excellent beard. Wonderful paintings.

And just to prove just how great he is, here is a video of someone stealing one of the paintings from this very exhibition, a mere week after Mama visited.

They’ve got it back now, but the painting is not going on display in this exhibition again, so here it is. Mama is pleased it has returned – it’s a good one. You can catch it at its home in the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg.

Stolen Kuindzhi painting

More information

The Tretyakov Gallery’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Dmitri Mendeleev.

Address: Engineering Building (just to the left of the main building),
Lavrushinsky Lane 12, Moscow 119017

Opening: 10am to 9pm, closed Mondays, and the exhibition closes on February 17th. After that, the paintings go back to the Tretyakov Gallery Moscow and the Russian Museum St Petersburg.

Admission: 500 roubles for adults, and 250 roubles for kids and concessions, free for the under 7s, assuming you want to encourage your kids and elderly relatives to stand in the freezing cold for hours. That said, Mama notices that the Tretyakov seems to have released some more online tickets since she went, so you might be lucky.

It’s an extra 350 roubles for the audio guide. Get the audio guide. Queuing for that long? You deserve it. But you’ll have to leave a 2000 rouble deposit or your ID.

By Metro: Tretyakovskaya metro station (orange and yellow lines). Once you are out, you’ll be turning left and following the signs (in English and Russian). The very distinctive Old Tretyakov Gallery building is across a road and right round a corner. Try not to end up leaving by the connected green line station exit of Novuskusnetskaya as it’ll be a bit of a trek back. But on the upside, you’ll get to enjoy the newly nearly pedestrianised Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa.

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Arkhip Kuindzhi was a landscape artist in Ukraine and Russia who also had a knack for painting light.

Have Spacesuit Will Travel to the Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

When we first visited the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, devoted to the Soviet and Russian space programme, Mama thought that space, its vastness, its inhospitable nature and the problems of how to stay there successfully went a bit over my and my Cosmic Big Brother’s head.

Inside a spacesuit Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

At that point we were only visiting Moscow, we were both six and under, and I was quite concerned about some of my toys. They were not where I was. I kept asking Mama if they were in my far far away home. She said yes. I was reassured for another ten minutes, while Mama was delighted. Not, I hasten to explain, because I was undergoing angst. But because she thought I had understood something important about the abstract concept of place.

What I say is that you would have had to be very dim indeed, or y’know, two or something not to grasp the distances involved when you have got on a train for ages, a plane for ages and ages and ages, a train for ages, an underground train for ages, and then still had short bus ride to go.

But space, I’m told, is even further away. And I did spend quite some time thinking that Moscow was a magical fairyland up in the clouds, because I tended to be asleep for the down bit of the journey. You can see Mama’s concern. Particularly as there are also actual adult people living today who think that the world is flat. 

On top of this, modern life being in many ways indistinguishable from magic, the sheer effort involved in chucking a big tin tube into outer space past the gravity sucking forces and cosy atmosphere bubble is easy to dismiss. Even when it comes back more or less intact. I mean, it’s alright, but it’s no carrying a talking super computer connected to the collected wisdom of humanity (plus cat pictures and Bejeweled Gem Swap Invasion 7) around in your pocket, is it? Surely there’s an app for that?

Satellite Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

However, the good news is that you cannot spend three years living in Russia without gaining a bit (ok, a lot) more appreciation of the whole undertaking. Or the idea that being first to *cough* almost *cough* everything to do with the cosmos is a thing to aspire to and be proud of.

MIR space station Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

So Mama now has to lean somewhat less hard on her not considerable knowledge of physics and engineering to engage us on our visit to the Space Museum, and can rely somewhat more on that of my Cosmic Big Brother. Who has been on school visits. And has internalized a number of factoids he finds interesting about the exhibits. Which he is more than happy to share.

Naturally, as it involves animals, chief among those is the life story of the space dogs, Belka and Strelka, the first two living beings to make it to space and come back alive (give or take a few mice and fruit flies). Did you know that after they landed they were never fed conventional dog food again, but only the very choicest of meaty morsels? You do now. And when they died, they were stuffed and put on display in the Moscow Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in the opening gallery devoted to some of the famous first flights. Now that’s fame.

Belka at the Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

Luckily for her, Valentina Tereshkova is still alive and unavailable. Mama wonders how close Yuri Gagarin was to sharing the same fate. But Sputnik is there, and that’s pretty cool, as are the first satellites to orbit various heavenly bodies, significant space suits and a film loop of footage surrounding the most significant space race milestones. Clips of take offs, engineers fiddling with equipment, the great dog/human cosmonauts themselves waving, and shots of ordinary people’s reactions to the news of what had happened.

Sputnik Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

The great engineering brains behind the endeavour are not forgotten either, but they too are given a human touch. Not just their medals or items from their professional lives are on display, but photos of them relaxing at the datcha alongside their personal chess board and so on too.

Also in this section are some of the spaceorific souvenirs created to commemorate all of this worthy activity. Which, this being the Soviet Union, were mostly in the form of lovingly hand crafted porcelain items rather than mass-produced plastic tat. This is Mama’s personal favourite, although she would like to point you in the direction of the very (very very) obviously female cosmonauts in the other display case.

Space flight souvenir Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

The engagement of children and adults alike is also enhanced by the fact that the Cosmonautics Museum is visually stunning too. The sputniks, rockets, landing crafts, satellites and probes which litter the place are objects d’art in their own right. The first room you enter has lighting designed to simulate a particularly impressive starry starry night, which makes all the shiny metal things twinkle and the marble floor gleam. The main exhibition hall has a space mural painted over the ceiling. Something which I was particularly delighted to point out to Mama.

Space Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

And it is surrounded by aluminum walkways, almost giving Mama the impression that she would at any moment be ushered into a space craft and countdown will commence.

Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

If you are in any way photography minded, this means you will want to invest in the special pass. You can take pictures with your phone for free, but for an actual camera you need to pay extra. Mama made the mistake of not realising the first time she visited how very photogenic the Moscow Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics would be. By the time she noticed, she was too far in to go back. Mama’s photography skills are not improved by having to hide behind Papa to snap shots very quickly, so this time we went she ponied up the 230 roubles immediately we arrived.

Totally. Worth. It.

Of course, you can see inside the rockets too, and actually tour a mock-up of the original space station, MIR. Where we were delighted by the computer stuck to the ceiling, the space toilet, and the fish tank.

Fish tank Mir Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

And then you can roam around in the section about how cosmonauts live, when they are preparing for space, when they are in space, and when they land. Check out the space fridge!

Space fridge Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

And the very natty training uniforms.

Cosmonauts uniforms Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

And lots of pictures of smiley people clearly having a whale of a time while whizzing round and round the Earth, pondering the insignificance of humanity’s place in the universe.

Life on MIR Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

And this, which my Cosmic Big Brother somehow still managed to make all about animals. It’s the emergency kit for cosmonauts who have landed to help them survive until help arrives. Note the gun? That’s for shooting wolves, apparently. Aaaaaaaaaaah, Russia.

Cosmonauts survival kit Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

Just underneath MIR, you can see a re-entry capsule that actually was in space, which you can tell because of its impressively incinerated look. Look out for this mottling elsewhere to reassure you they have not just emptied out the space programme’s cupboards of all the spare, unused space-going, possibly a bit substandard machinery.

Reentry Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

The last area is when international co-operation in this great undertaking is celebrated, specially in detailing the work of the International Space Station. We were terribly excited to see the UK flag up there. Hurrah for all two of our astronauts!

Cosmonauts and astronauts Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

It is sobering, though, to note by looking at the wall of Soviet/ Russian cosmonauts, just how few people of any nationality have been up on the cosmos in the last 70-odd years.

If all of this attention to the pinnacle of human ingenuity has made you hungry, there is now a cafe open on the premises, in which you can buy some very reasonable pizzas, and souvenir space food.

Mama was rather upset not to be able to get dehydrated space ice cream and recreate the thrill of when Grandad brought her some on his business trip to the US space centres when she was a child. However, with careful consideration, we got some chicken-and-potato-in-a-tube to take home. After much delighted faffing about with the nifty self-heating pouch, it was a bit of a let down to discover that what was inside was perfectly palatable. But then none of us is all that far removed from the pureed baby food era of family life, so this judgement is perhaps not representative of the reaction of the population at large.

They have also set up a proper souvenir shop in the Moscow Space Museum foyer, although Mama thinks they need more interesting mugs, and also wonders why they do not sell the space food there. We just wanted the Belka and Strelka toys. And magnets. And, I dunno, pencil sharpeners. Whatever there are the cute space dogs on really. Although I was also impressed by the professional looking telescopes.

What they have taken away since our last visit are the very blue, very plush, very strokable rope barriers. Noooooooooooooo! But probably sensible, given that you were not supposed to touch them. Mama likes to think the decision was made after she helpfully pointed out this problem in our original post about the Cosmonautics Museum in Moscow.

The museum does still have the best entrance marker of any museum evah. A sliver rocket soaring on a silver smoke trail elegantly high into the sky. At its base are two very Soviet murals, whose supermen (and dogs) marching gloriously forward into the heavens does not, in this instance, look at all overdone. Mama had been admiring it for years before she ever made it into the museum.

The rocket sculpture above the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Do not dither in the same way yourself and do not let the shiny distraction of the new Cosmos Pavillion in VDNKh, or the fact that you can go on a tour to Star City, the actual current cosmonaut/ astronaut training area outside of Moscow, distract you – the Memorial Museum of Cosmonauitics is still very very worth visiting. It’s important, it’s interesting, it’s beautiful and it’s really really well air-conditioned.

This post has been considerably revised from the original 2014 version after a recent visit.

More information

The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the first manned space flight.

Address: 129515, Москва, пр. Мира, д.111

Opening: 11am to 7pm every day except Monday, when is is closed, and Thursday, when it is open until 9pm.

Price: Adults – 250 rubles, Children over seven (and other concessions) – 100 rubles, Children under seven – free. The photography pass (which you MUST get if you have a camera) is 230 rubles.

By Metro: The nearest station is ВДНХ (VDNKh) on the orange line. It is about 100m to the museum entrance past a couple of cruise missiles if you come out of the exit near the front of the train (assuming you are travelling out from the centre), but if you choose the exit past the rear carriages, you can walk up a pedestrian-only avenue lined with cosmonaut-planted trees, busts of famous space-programme-related people, stars commemorating important cosmic milestones, and a damn big solar system sculpture-come-sundial. Luckily, whatever exit you choose, you can’t miss the museum. Head for the rocket.

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Go to the Cosmonautics Museum Moscow and experience the highlights of the Soviet and Russian space programme including sputnik, MIR and Belka and Strelka in person

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