Gorodskaya Ferma / Городская Ферма at VDNH, Moscow

So you think that summer holidays in the UK are looooooooong, do you? Well, if you are my age you probably don’t actually, but I gather the odd Mama here and there does. Anyway. Spare a thought for all those Russian parents out there. They start the long haul at the beginning of JUNE, people, and don’t stop until the 1st September.

There are many strategies Muscovites have for dealing with this. A popular one is packing the kids off to the datcha with the grandparents for the duration. But not everybody has a glorified allotment with a larger than usual shed on it and so Moscow is a particularly ripe spot for child-friendly profit-driven attractions.

One of these is the new(ish) Gorodskaya Ferma, or City Farm, at the exhibition complex VDNH, which is fast becoming the place in Moscow to house such things. The Polytechnic Museum has its temporary exhibition here, and Europe’s biggest aquarium has likewise just opened its doors.  And since the words ‘farm’ and ‘animals’ go together like ‘pelmeni’ and ‘smetana’, we inevitably found our way there within a short time of arriving in Russia’s capital.

Campfire at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

What we found is that Gorodskaya Ferma is more of a boutique farmette that your actual sprawling acres of muddy husbandry. Which is fine, especially as what immediately caught our attention when we stepped inside was the well designed play area. It was, in fact, quite some time before we prised ourselves away from the hammocks, the climbing nets, the slides and the sandpit and went in search of the live entertainment.

Play area at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

And there we found rabbits. Who seemed bent on escaping their enclosure. Some disinterested sheep. A handful of decidedly interested goats.

Goats at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Two cows. DONKEYS (I liked the DONKEYS – they are practically HORSES). And geese and chickens. Who have rather fabulous houses.

Chicken house at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

And ducks. Who have  rather splendid pom pom feather headdresses.

And all of this was very fine as such things always are.

But what Mama and my Terrific Big Brother really liked was the barn full of straw bales. Which you can climb all over.

I, on the other hand, did not like the barn full of straw bales.

In fact, I stood outside holding my nose and complaining. An unreconstructed urbanite, said Mama, from her perch on the top of the fragrant if slightly prickly tower.

Barn at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Straw does have its uses though. We got to take a handful back to the cows, for example. And then there was the straw modelling workshop which saw Mama, whose crafting abilities resemble that of the ten-year-olds the activity was probably pitched at, attack the activity of wrapping handfuls of the stuff into the shape of animals with admirable gusto. I think we were supposed to be making a fox. What we got was a giraffe and a goose. In case you were wondering.

Straw animals at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

More my Terrific Big Brother’s thing was the autumn collages, involving the gathering and arrangement of leaves, twigs, straw, sand and anything else that took the group’s fancy into concentric circles. More and more concentric circles. Just another one Mama. Oooooh, how about a ring of sand to finish… hey, we could do some more leaves and… look, I’ve found a feather! That patch of grass over there had some excellent sticks let’s go back there and… Mama had to be firm in the end. It was time to go. It was PAST time to go. No, really, now. I pretty much had to throw a tantrum to get us out of there. The things I do for my family.

Leaf art at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Another thing Mama would like to note about Gorodskaya Ferma is that they are fully English-enabled. Mama knows this because when she made a total hash of enquiring how, exactly, one went about purchasing food to feed the animals, the cashier was utterly delighted to be able to wave over his English-speaking colleague to deal with her. In fact, this happened every time anyone realised we were talking in English, and as they were extremely crestfallen to discover that Mama’s Russian is not as bad as all that in any case she has her own personal translator in my Terrific Big Brother, Mama feels that it is necessary for all the non-Russian speaking peoples of Moscow to go down to the farm and make the very enthusiastic staff’s day.

And in case you are wondering, the answer to Mama’s query is that you pay fifty roubles for a token, which you pay into bubble gum-esque dispensing machines in return for a small handful of either diced carrots or dry bread. If you don’t remember to pick up your tokens at the entrance there are also machines near the food.  It has to be said, there’s nothing like having food whiffled out of your hand by a snortingly warm muzzle.

Speaking of which, Gorodskaya Ferma has a café, or at least a food dispensing kiosk and some accompanying under cover tables. The café staff seemed a tad harassed – Mama thinks their menu is a bit ambitious for a hut with a microwave and a fridge – and frankly I was outraged that they did not sell hot chocolate, but Mama seemed happy with her coffee and the free WiFi and let us wander off to see what was happening over in the small cultivated area opposite.

Because verily, Gorodskaya Ferma is not just about cowsnchickens. You can also have a go at grubbing around in the dirt and waving a small watering can in the general direction of some lettuce.

Or painting the apple trees, which was the activity which had caught our attention. By the time Mama ambled over we were covered in whitewash and she was not at all to be distracted by the various reasons why such beautification is done. Why, Mama would like to know, when all Russian children manage to paint a tree without spattering it all over themselves, do we end up with it patterning our trousers and even in our hair? Luckily, not actually being paint, it washed out and off without too much effort.

Apple trees at Gorodskaya Ferma VDNH

Of course, the summer holidays are over now and although we have been enjoying what Mama says is one of Moscow’s typically glorious Indian summers, now October is here it is getting nippy and at some point it’s going to snow. Russians are, of course, used to this and there are signs that the team at Gorodskaya Ferma have prepared for this with a number of the attractions being undercover affairs, but Mama has no idea what Gorodskaya Ferma’s plans are once the colder weather really sets in.

So you’d better get down there quick and enjoy the last of the good weather and the crafting opportunities while they last. They appear to be all about the pumpkins from their Instagram feed at present.

Say hi to the donkeys for me.

More information

Gorodskaya Ferma’s page on VDNH’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the chemistry of autumn colours.

Address: Next to the historic pavilion 44 (‘Rabbit breeding’), VDNH Estate 119, Prospect Mira, Moscow, 129223.

Opening: Every day except for Mondays from 10 a.m. till 8 p.m.

Admission: Adults and children over 3 years old, 200 roubles (£2) on weekdays and 300 roubles (£3) at weekends.

By Metro: The nearest metro is Botonichiskii Sad on the orange line, but the nearest exit from there is closed for renovation at the moment and so to get to Gorodskaya Ferma you have to go straight on down the road next to the railway tracks, cross left under the railway tracks, walk up the road a bit, cross the road into a path through a wood opposite the entrance to the actual Botonichiskii Sad (Botanical Gardens), amble through the wood, amble through a patch of rather attractive heathland, and cross another road to get to the back entrance of VDNH, whereupon the farm is directly on your right, though you have to head round to the entrance opposite the large pond. Mama thinks this may not be a trip for the fainthearted visitors out there, although all hail Google maps is what she suggests. That and heading in the general direction of Ostankino TV tower in the distance.

Ostankino tower at VDNH

However, your other option is to get off at VDNH (orange line) and then walk the length of the ex-Soviet exhibition space to the big pond at the back. Gorodskaya Ferma is at the end that doesn’t have the vaguely phallic fountain (Mama says). It’s a bloody long walk though (I say). Insist your big people take a scooter to tow you along and at the very least you must demand to go no further unless you are fed an ice cream every ten paces. On the upside, VDNH is always a fascinating venue to wander around.

By other means: No idea. Well, all right there are buses and trams and such which will get you a tad closer than the Metro, but unless you know about them already, Mama thinks you are better off with the hike. There may well be parking somewhere, but Mama is frankly uninterested in finding out where.

New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val, Moscow

Buoyed by her success in taking us round the Old one, Mama decided to try out the New Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val.

Good choice. We much prefer modern art, it being similar to the sort of craftings we produce. It does not occur to us to scoff at the fact that the painter has labelled a series of inexplicable squiggles ‘Love’ because we have only that morning presented Mama with seventeen splodges of green we are calling ‘Cats’.

Sticks at the Tretyakov Gallery
This is Art we thoroughly approve of.

Plus, the permanent galleries of the New Tretyakov Gallery are almost completely empty whenever she goes there. If you are going to take small children round an art gallery, doing it when there are not likely to be art lover patrons who want to study the works in meditative contemplation is always a bonus.

The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsy Val
Look! No people!

The lack of visitors is odd, in Mama’s opinion. She thinks that foreign tourists from outside of the Former Soviet Union are actually more likely to be excited by the paintings in the New Tretyakov Gallery than the Old, unless they have a special interest in finding out about more Russia than the activities of Tsars, how awful Communism was and lots and lots of ballet. Or circuses. The art, history and culture in the Old Tretyakov Gallery is largely unknown to abroad and Mama is not sure that is what people come to Moscow for.

The art in the New Tretyakov Gallery, on the other hand, contains pieces by internationally famous artists (Kandinsky, Chagall, Malevich, Goncharova to start you off), internationally famous avant-garde movements (Neo-primitivism, suprematism, constructivism and futurism, otherwise known and geometric shapes r us), internationally famous images of glorious workers (Mama’s favourite is the woman posing dramatically with the slide rule) and pictures of internationally famous mass murderers (Stalin and Lenin and so on).

Slide rule and woman at the Tretyakov Gallery
There is nothing more fabulous than a slide rule.

Part of the problem, Mama ruminates, is that really, the paintings all belong to the Old Tretyakov Gallery, which inherited them almost by accident. The core of the New Tretyakov Gallery comes from a private collection of a Greek expat, who, at a time when the authorities just weren’t having the more interesting expressions of artistic temperament, quietly went around snapping up what ought to have been national treasures for an absolute song.

Eventually, Soviet society twigged to the possibilities and the collector started suffering a number of burglaries. It seems that the state then got most of his acquisitions in some kind of deal that allowed him to leave the country with his favourites at a time when leaving the country was, Mama says, tricky. Can’t think why. Mama only needs our birth certificates, her marriage certificate and a letter from Papa in addition to our many passports to break us out.

So Mama always wonders if the lack of popularity has something to to with the Old Tretyakov Gallery being at a bit of a loss as to know what to do with its modern art, suppressed for so long that, by the time they took over, even if it wasn’t outright banned, it was seriously unfashionable.

And, perhaps, a bit unfathomable. The problem with the glorification of forms, migraine inducing swirls of colour and childishly drawn representations of what might (or might not) be a person, well, Mama thinks that to a certain extent, you had to be there. Doubtless it was a gloriuous shock at the time, but now, now it is just a big black square on a white canvas. It’s not even in the icon corner for maximum symbolic impact.

Malevich at the Tretyakov Gallery
The original Black Square.

The world has moved on to unmade beds, big unadorned lumps of burnt wood and giant green plastic butt plugs.

Says Mama.

Nowadays it is probably also true that for Russians and those from the Former Soviet Union, a good half if it are those sorts of idealised Communist images, or reactions to Communist images, which they must all be heartily sick of, in all senses of the word.

Constructivism at the Tretyakov Gallery
I could do that.

Although someone has certainly given a lot of thought to how to hang it so that philistines like Mama will actually get it.

Kandinsky and Malevitch’s contempories surround their paintings and give you a really good impression of how artists riff off each other in creating something new and exciting.

The room of the joyful and (Mama finds) truly inspirational Soviet images from the earlier days gives onto the contrasting rooms of the official and unofficial artists from later, somewhat less joyful, periods.

Heros of the Soviet Union at the Tretyakov Gallery
Hero footballers of the Soviet Union.
Soviet Realism at the Tretyakov Gallery
Soviet Realism is real.
Unapproved Soviet art at the Tretyakov Gallery
This is not Soviet Realism. This is a kitchen!

The nature of repression and its effect on art is topped with the room dedicated to massive paintings of an avuncular Stalin twinkling his way though various scenes and from there you are plunged straight into the section showcasing what the expat Soviet artists were doing at the same time, with considerably more freedom.

Expat Soviet artists at the Tretyakov Gallery
I can see bottoms, Mama!

To finish off, there are examples of the sorts of things which artists produced during and after the Fall. Mama thinks that this section is definitely a bit patchy, but then she suspects that is because the New Tretyakov Gallery has only a fraction of the works of that time and, in any case, coherent movements were definitely not really what that era was about.

They do also have exhibitions, and these are actually very well attended and included in the price of your general entrance ticket. But they focus on retrospectives rather than new works, and often of artists who feature more in the Old Gallery.

The New Tretyakov Gallery is, in fact, a museum of 20th Century art not an art gallery as such. You should go and see it though and don’t let them fob you off with the Old Gallery. It’s a very interesting museum of art for anyone who hasn’t had  to deal with the reality of living under or in the aftermath of the Soviet years. And most of it has extensive English text to explain things, as well as an audio guide option.

But don’t be expecting to buy anything too exciting afterwards. The shop is absolutely minimal, consisting of one small kiosk, rarely, in Mama’s experience, actually open.

And the cafe never has been. Not once in the actually quite large number of time Mama has been there. Luckily, the sculpture park surrounding the New Tretyakov Gallery, Museon, has a number of small coffee and snack vendors dotted around, and the time we were there there were also at least two places selling more substantial meals further along the building. You could also hop over the road to Gorky Park, or head back towards the metro too, all of which have more places to eat.

We enjoyed our time in the gallery, wildly creepy black and white final exhibition notwithstanding.

Prigov at the Tretyakov Gallery
This artist scared the living daylights out of us.

We expressed our opinion that Kandinsky mainly painted dinosaurs; tried out some of the poses, particularly of the more anatomically challenged figures; found all the naked people in the radical Where’s Wally painting (see above), especially the three breasted ones; descended with glee on the multimedia visual sound poems like the children of the push button Internet age we are; and kept a look out for the docents to distract so Mama could snap a few pictures. The trick is to smile and show them your toy lizard. They loved that.

Kandinsky at the Tretyakov Gallery
Kandinsky’s dinosaur painting.

And Mama had a grand old time using her imagination to explain conceptual art to us. So that’s alright.

More Information

The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsy Val’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about constructions with a ruler and a compass.

Address: 10 Krymsky Val, Moscow 117049

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday – 10am to 7.30pm. Monday – CLOSED.

Admission: 450 rubles (about £6.50) for adults, 250 rubles (£3.50) for students, children under 7 are free.

NB: It’s slightly cheaper for Russians. The New Tretyakov Galley is the only place where Mama has ever been offered the cheaper price, unless she is hiding behind Papa and scowling. Doesn’t work when we are with her though. We refuse to speak Russian to Mama.

By Metro: Oktabrskaya (orange and brown lines) – turn right, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left down the other massive seven million lane highway. Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. The Gallery is opposite Gorky Park.

By other means: Actually, the trollybus route ‘Б’ stops right outside. This is a circular route, which takes you round the edges of the centre of Moscow and hits a fair number of metro stations on the way. It’s quite a fun way of getting to or from the Gallery.

The Old Tretyakov Gallery, Lavrushinsky Lane, Moscow

Mama has been going to the Old Tretyakov Gallery about once a year so for about 15 years now. Last time we let her go on her own she took the (English. Other languages are available) audio guide tour. Five hours later she staggered back out of the building, and that was despite suffering a total failure of will when it came to the icon section. The tour is organised around you deciding which of the paintings to find out more about, and Mama, who really likes the gallery and everything in it, wanted to find out more about nearly all of them.

Old Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow

What you have in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, begun by a wealthy businessman (Tretyakov himself) and added to by the state when they acquired it on his death, is half of nearly all the famous paintings done by painters working in the Former Russian Empire (the other half are in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg).

This makes it a very interesting place to someone who likes a hefty dose of cultural history alongside her aesthetic appreciation (Mama).

Sometimes there are advantages to artists not being particularly famous outside their own country. Or, y’know, enforced nationalisation of aristocratic possessions.

Mind you, regarding the tour, Mama wonders if it might not be a good idea to give more casual visitors an indication of the absolute must sees for a shorter version, or provide an alternative more overview focused guide. But the descriptions are excellent, and you learn a lot about the individual pictures, the artist, and the cultural, political and sociological context surrounding them.

Mama was amused to note that not all of the paintings are described in glowing terms. The experts are not afraid to say when they consider that the painter has made a fist of depicting the lightnshadows, for example, and their critiques take in even some of the images which are, for the people of the Former Soviet Union, as familiar as the Sunflowers, The Hay Wain or the Mona Lisa are to someone like Mama.

My Excellent Big Brother and I are now resigned to viewing art with Mama, but to be fair, Mama has got better at showing us around. She is quite prepared to cover the whole building in less than an hour, makes sure we are well fed and have had a run around before we go in, takes pencils and paper in case we want to do some copying and shamelessly bribes us with a promised trip to MacDonald’s after we have finished.

As it turns out, you are not supposed to sit on the floor and sketch in the Old Tretyakov Gallery.

We discovered this when we tried to draw our favourite painting, the Three Bogatyrs. My Excellent Big Brother likes it because it is of three famous characters from Russian fairy tales, one of which Mama pretends he is named after. I like it because they are sitting on three magnificent horses. Plus, it’s huge, brightly-coloured and not at all depressing, which Mama discovered is not at all true about many of the other paintings she usually likes to linger over.

Vasnetsov's Three Bogatyrs at the Tretyakov Gallery

One in particular made my Excellent Big Brother cry. It’s the one where the soldiers of the Strelki Guard are waiting with their distraught families on Red Square to be executed, overlooked by a vengeful Peter the Great (on a horse!). The Strelki, as a unit, being the ones who brutally murdered his family when Peter was a boy.

Surikov's Streltsi and Peter the Great at the Tretyakov Gallery

Perhaps Mama should not have explained the background to that one.

She managed to restrain herself when it came to Ivan the Aptly-Named Terrible desperately cradling his son, after he had bludgeoned him to death in a rage and rushed us past it before we could ask, even though it is a painting she finds particularly powerful.

Repin's Ivan and Son at the Tretyakov Gallery

Mama also decided that some of her other favourite paintings, the bitingly satirical commentaries on contemporary society, might also require a rather sophisticated explanation, although she did point out the somewhat heartbreaking troika of three poor children employed in the freezing cold as water barrel movers. Mama feels we should occasionally appreciate our comfortable lifestyles more than we do, specially when we are pestering her for new toys.

Perov's Troika at the Tretyakov Gallery

Luckily the painter, Perov, seems to have sold out later and done a cheerful hunting scene. Be sure to press the button for the commentary on this one. It is magnificently scathing.

She also declined to comment on the fate of this young lady. I think she must be Ariel from the Little Mermaid, and we all know that turns out ok in the end. In the Disney version, mutters Mama, darkly. And it’s true that this girl does not have red hair (or much pink about her).

Flavitsky's Tarakanova at the Tretyakov Gallery

The Russians also seem to have gone to war a lot. Mama resigned herself to the inevitable and we spent time contemplating what the artists’ views about war were, whether they wanted to glorify the victory or highlight something else.

Mama herself seems to be broadly against war. She thinks that these paintings, by a man who was there for one, tell you everything you should know about it, then and now.

Vereshchagin Apotheosis of War at the Tretyakov Gallery

My Excellent Big Brother was more struck by the personal tragedy of this one. Or it might have been the vultures that caught his eye.

Vasnetsov's Erruption at the Tretyakov Gallery

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

There are a number of famous Russians in the gallery. The first set of rooms is full of paintings of people with very big grey hair and very big fancy clothes. Mama pointed out that at the time, there were no cameras and if you wanted a picture of yourself or your loved ones, you had to pay someone to spend hours bringing you to life on paper. She asked us who we thought got painted.

My Excellent Big Brother decided on kings and queens and so we looked for some of them in each room. And found them! Mama’s favourite painting is the one of Peter III where you can see the considerable difference between the sketch and the finished picture, which goes to show airbrushing is certainly not a new idea. Here is the cleaned up version. I shall leave the probably-more-accurate quick fire one to your imagination.

Antropov's Peter III at the Tretyakov Gallery

My Excellent Big Brother prefers the one of the benign elderly lady walking her dog in her dressing gown, which Mama says is almost certainly a through misreading of the piece given that this is an Empress called Catherine the Great, although also an interesting departure from the pomp and circumstance of previous portraits. My Excellent Big Brother doesn’t care. He just likes the dog.

Borovikovsky's Catherine the Great at the Tretyakov Gallery

I like the pretty woman with the froth of wispy hair. Mama says she’s not a princess, but I knew that already. Not enough pink.

Levitsky's Mniszek at the Tretyakov Gallery

After this we passed into a room with lots of paintings of ruins, none of which we were very interested in, although it did have a portrait of Pushkin, who is a poet. You can tell he is an important poet because they have a little rope barrier in front of the painting in case you try to throw yourself at it in an excess of artistic sensibility or something. Mama says I will doubtless be finding out more about just how important he is shortly, when I start learning large swathes of his rhymes off by heart, just like my Excellent Big Brother has already. I am looking forward to that, I can tell you!

Kiprensky's Pushkin

Mama has recently managed to find a way to shoehorn Pushkin into my Excellent Big Brother’s English school homework. She is so proud.

Mama was a little disappointed to find that the section towards the end with the peasant girls swirling in bright red dresses was closed for refurbishment, but some of the pre-revolution impressionistic stuff was bright and jolly. Mama tried to get us to notice how the portraits here were so very very different in what they chose to highlight about their subjects from the ones that we’d seen at the beginning of the gallery, but my Excellent Big Brother was transfixed by the large pink naked woman lolling around on a sofa and wasn’t paying attention. Mama also wisely decided to give up on attempting to explain how the artists were painting light not things.

Kustodiyev's Beauty

People are not the only thing to see at the Old Tretyakov Gallery, however. There are also a lot of religous themes, and surprisingly many of them are without trauma. Mama enjoys this very bright and busy one, which apparently took the artist 20 years to complete. It’s called Christ’s First Appearance to the People. We played hunt the Christ. My Excellent Big Brother, he of the two churches education, had no trouble picking Him out. But Mama thinks the fun of this painting is looking at the some of the many many preliminary drawings the artist did on the surrounding walls.

See how John the Baptist starts life as a woman! Watch as the artist experiments with getting just the right amount of skepticism into Thomas the Doubter’s expression! Thrill at the way the amazing curls of John the Beloved take shape!

Ivanov's Appearance of Christ at the Tretyakov Gallery

Mama, who clearly can’t resist poking a sleeping bear where religion is concerned, also had us look at two less flattering paintings. This one is, as my Excellent Big Brother twigged, is of a controversy within the church. Must have been a hell of an issue. Mama says, yes, something to do with the number of fingers it is appropriate to cross yourselves with. She also says, make sure you listen to the description of this one. Apparently, the artist (Perov again) got the composition ALL WRONG (it’s possible the commentators have something against Perov).

Perov's Dispute on Faith at Tretyakov Gallery

They don’t have anything against Repin. Repin is one of the truly great painters represented in the gallery. Mama and Papa once watched an episode of a programme called the Antiques Roadshow where a Repin painting turned up, fresh from somebody’s attic. Mama and Papa a) spat their tea right across the room when the expert revealed the name and b) marvelled at the coolness of the owner, until they realised he had know idea who Repin was. A mistake. The painting was worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Quite why he is great is easy to see from the Ivan painting above and the one of the religious procession. Not only is every last person in the crowd exquisitely rendered and completely individual, but nobody will be saying the composition is a bit shaky or the satire a bit overdone. At first glance, it looks like an uncomplicated drawing of a cheerfully colourful parade, a happy occasion in the life of the small town. When you start looking more carefully, it’s the beautiful devout cripple you notice first. Only later do you realise that he has been marginalised by the rest of society, and that the mass of faces behind him are marred by expressions of pride, boredom, irritation or other unbecoming emotions.

Repin's Easter Procession at the Tretyakov Gallery

If that’s a bit much, admire the painting of his daughter, the dragonfly. Looks a bit like me, huh?

Repin's Dragonfly at the Tretyakov Gallery

We didn’t do the icons though. Mama likes icons, as they are all significance and very little artistic flourish, but they are right at the end of the show, and by that time we were showing signs of restiveness. You could probably come just for the icons if that is your bag, Mama thinks. There are a lot of them, they are very old, and some of them work miracles. Mama, unfortunately, has never yet had the energy to appreciate them properly after hauling herself round the rest of the gallery.

We did appreciate the animal interest available at the Old Tretyakov Gallery though! This is Shishkin, who is famous for painting trees, bears and bears hugging trees, although if Mama’s audio guide is correct, he contracted out the bears in his most famous picture.

Shishkin's Bears at the Tretyakov Gallery

Mama knew she’d spent too long hanging with the Russians when she started to feel fondly for the tourist tat knock offs on the Arbat rather than wondering who the hell the vendors think would by such insipid twaddle.

Shishkin knock offs on the Arbat

Of course, there’s a whole shop devoted to Thomas Kincaid in London.

Mama also realised she has developed alarmingly sentimental feelings for some of the great landscape paintings.

Levitan's Vladimirka at the Tretyakov Gallery

We, however, were not in the slightest bit interested, even in the ones with what Mama insists is a virtuoso performance in how to capture light without resorting to reducing everything to pixels. She says you should google Kuindzhi, or, better, visit Russia and the Old Tretyakov Gallery, because computer screens really don’t do him justice.

Kuindzhi's Night on the Dneiper at the Tretyakov Gallery

We preferred the Rooks Returning. Mama says it is a deeply meaningful meditation on the impact of their climate on the Russians and their though processes. We just admired the birds. My Excellent Big Brother even managed to copy it because we found this room empty of attendants before we got told off for sitting on the floor in front of our knights.

Savrasov's Rooks Returning at the Tretyakov Gallery

And then there was the picture of the fly (with some fruit). Mama wanted to discuss whey the artist has painted the fly, although I suspect my Excellent Big Brother thought the real question was why bother with the vegetation? We decided the fly might lend realism, or be a joke, or show how beautiful things can have their dark side, or just represent a moment when a fly landed on a pear an artist was painting. What do you think?

Khrutskaya's Flowers, Fruit and Fly at the Tretyakov Gallery

But of course the highlight was the big black horse prancing towards the viewer with a young lady elegantly sidesaddle on its back. I like her little sister too. Cute! Like me!

Bryullov's Rider at the Tretyakov Gallery

And in the shop in jigsaw form! Mama feels that the shop, like others at the tourist attractions of Moscow, misses too many opportunities to fleece the tourists. She thinks it focuses a little too much on large glossy art books. But she has found the odd one or two things she she likes here in the past, notably the mugs covered in signatures by famous artists and collections of postcards, and she certainly appreciated the puzzle on the plane back to London.

The gallery also sports a cafe, which we had a brief look into. It is neither wildly cheap nor ruinously expensive, and serves a decent selection of hot Russian classics and cake in comfortable attractive surroundings. She wished she could have been sure it was open before we went, because in the end we held Mama to our promised trip to the golden arches back near the Metro. Mama was unsuccessful once again to place her order for two happy meals and a fillet of fish without incident. It’s a basic tourist fail is not managing to order successfully in MacDonald’s and we are all thoroughly ashamed. I predict Mama is going to insist on us eating local next time.

If you do not have a date with fast food planned, Mama recommends turning left as you exit and walking down the pedestrianised street to the canal, where you will find many iron trees covered with heart shaped padlocks. This is one of the places where wedding parties come to celebrate their day, and you can kick back and watch a stream of beautifully dressed people take photos of each other, should you so wish.

Anyway. We found a lot to look at in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, and despite the ban on crayoning, the staff were welcoming and friendly to us small people. It’s a great place to go if you want to find out more about the Russia that existed before the revolution, and to delve a bit deeper into its history and culture.

Just don’t save the icon room until the end, if that’s what you are interested in. You’ll never make it.

And finally, here is another random painting Mama really likes, because there aren’t enough of them in this post already:

Polenov's Moscow Courtyard at the Tretyakov Gallery

It is Mama’s understanding that all of these images are in the public domain by virtue of the originals being old. If she is wrong, she is very willing to amend this post.

More Information

The Tretyakov Gallery website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about being an artist’s model.

Address: 10 Lavrushinsky Lane, Moscow, Russia 119017

Opening: Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday: 10am to 6pm. Thursday and Friday: 10am to 9pm. Monday: CLOSED.

Admission: Adults – 450 rubles, children – 250 rubles, children under 7 – free. It is slightly cheaper if you can pass yourselves off as Russian. Good luck with that.

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.

By other means: Oh now really, no.

Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

Polytechnic Museum entrance

The Polytechnic Museum is Moscow’s premier science, engineering and technology museum.

It’s currently closed for a total refurbishment.

Luckily it has found a temporary home in one of the large pavilions in the exhibition park VDNKh. Mama heard was particularly chock full of interactive aspects. Clearly we had to check it out.

The pavilion is rocking a sort of ornate classical look, but once you get inside you are in a dim mysterious world of technological goodies gleaming in the spotlights of all the different ways artificial light can illuminate.

Polytechnic museum pavilion, ornate details

We first came to a stop in front of a large TV screen showing a life size image of a scientist pottering about his laboratory.

Then he started to talk to us! In Russian, but we were invited (in English) to hold our hands up, in which case he switches to English. I know this because Mama immediately did. The hologram goes on to give you a little overview of the section you are standing in, with options at the end for you to ask him to explain more about some of the individual exhibits.

It’s FAB.

And repeated for all of the different areas and themes. Mama enjoyed the stern Soviet era babushka physicist and the floaty cosmonaut but she was particularly impressed by the splendidly sneery rapper who introduced the display on genetic engineering, although the translation really doesn’t do him justice.

Holograms at Polytechnic Museum

She was a bit dismayed thereafter though to find that the in depth explanatory labels, also helpfully provided in British English as well as Russian if you stab at the Union Jack in the corner of the screen, were a good few notches above her level of understanding of how physics works. And sadly this was not due to dodgy translations.

But Mama is soothed by the suspicion that the designers are being very clever and providing enhancements pitched at different levels of understanding or different levels of interest, rather than make every interactive dodad work for the under tens.

Fair enough.

So as well as the labels for the serious enthusiast, the museum has comfy armchairs which murmur soothingly in your ear about inventions and inventors for the senior citizens, child-height tablets showing short visual cartoon clips explaining things to the next generation, and an array of frankly bonkers artistic interpretations of science for the humanities graduates.

Still, Mama thought the bit that worked best for her was the section on teraforming on Mars because she actually came away knowing more about the subject than she did when she started, and interestingly, this was arguably the most traditional of the displays, with a series of dioramas doing most of the work.

Or perhaps she was just most interested in this. Too much Heinlein in her formative years.

Which is not to say that she didn’t enjoy the modern art. The one with the bank of TV screens of performance artists interpreting science was hysterical if almost completely baffling, and we were all delighted by the installation which converted waterflow into binary digits for, as far as we could tell, no real reason whatsoever.

Science is Art at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

We also enjoyed lighting things up, making electricity spark, smearing our fingers all over the many many touchscreens, the experiment to make water spike into different shapes by the power of hand held or knob-twiddled magnets, and especially the place where we were all able to lay flat on some cushions and contemplate the universe swirling on the ceiling above us.

Mama’s main reservation is that some of the whiz bang squeeeeeeee completely overshadows the actual exhibits rather than enhancing our appreciation of them, although I think she is being a bit of a killjoy there. It would also have been nice if more of the buttons were actually working. Mama in particular was disappointed she didn’t get to launch a spaceship.

She thought the doors which invited us to guess what invention had been inspired by someone observing nature closely were particularly good value, though, being comprehensible, touchy feely and, specially for my Amazing Big Brother, involving copious animal interest.

Nature-inspired science at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

The actual name of the whole exhibition is ‘Russia did it herself’ which is both disconcertingly flag wavy and also oddly defensive, Mama says. This might be because, as most of the actual stuff is from upwards of 40 years ago, you do get the impression that Russia’s glory age of scientific exploration is somewhat in the past.

But then, what glory days they were!

Clearly the pinnacle is the TV with the water filled goldfish aquarium as a standard attachment. Papa says his Papa used to have one of these at work. Once again I am persuaded that this Soviet Union must have been a paradise. How great must that have been?

TV with fishbowl lense at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

Mama’s highlight was the simulation of a nuclear bomb exploding. Now, some people might feel that this is a monumentally tasteless bit of button pushing fun, and Mama admits that there is some merit in this although, she also points out, the Russians have never actually used a nuclear explosion to incinerate thousands and condemn survivors to a particularly nasty lingering death, unlike some people.

Perhaps you should assume that what the designers are trying to do is instill awe in the visitor at the sheer scale of the power involved. And if you do, then by means of clever white out lighting, a super strong blast from some hidden fans, and a truly impressive noise which is not only loud but so low it vibrates right through you it really does the job.

If it helps, you have actually ask for the exhibit to be turned on. It gets a bit much otherwise, the docent said, and lessens the impact.

Guess who did the asking in our party?

Nuclear bomb at Polytechnic Museum, Moscow

It’s not that the museum ignores the destructive uses of this invention. Visitors are invited to reflect on what happens when science is harnesssed for evil purposes while adding to an ever-growing mobile composed of origami doves. Not sure it entirely makes up for it though. Mama clearly was more interested the BIG BADDA BOOM than contemplating the horror, and, again, it is perhaps a tad sophisticated for us kids, especially my Amazing Big Brother, who has the paper folding skills of a jellyfish.

Basically, if the aim is to make people generally excited about how utterly cool science, engineering and technology can be, Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum scores a resounding win. And Mama thinks it’s pretty exciting that given a temporary space to play with, the Polytechnic Museum has decided to have fun and accelerate right out beyond the edge of what an established museum might attempt with its displays.

So as a teaser for the eventual reopening of the main building it is very successful. She will certainly have us first in the queue to find out. And we will be bouncing up and down beside her.

More information

The Polytechnic Museum’s website (in some English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Andrei Sakharov, the USSR, the H bomb and human rights.

Address: VDNKh, Pavilion #26.

Opening: Tues – Fri, 10am to 8pm. Sat – Sun, 10am to 9pm. Monday – CLOSED.

Prices: Adults – 300 rubles (£4.50), schoolchildren – 150 rubles (£2.30), under 7s – free.

By metro: From VDNKh (on the orange line) you need to walk through the VDNKh exhibition park. The Polytechnic Pavilion is easy to find, being on the left of the full size space rocket.

The State Darwin Museum, Moscow

It is fair to say that there is probably nowhere else in the world that has so many stuffed animals on display as the State Darwin Museum in Moscow.

Stuffed animals at the State Darwin Museum Moscow
Now what do these have in common? Anyone? You at the back there?

Three large floors of them, plus more in the building next door. You’ve got dioramas of animals in their native habitats; groups of endangered or extinct animals; scenes of animals being torn apart by other animals, and other… educational… interactions; displays of a bewildering number of different types of squirrel; cases showing a large selection of dog breeds in order of size and likely ferociousness, from wolves down to those little yippy ones you keep in handbags; expositions on the topic of genetics punctuated by the stuffed remains of generations of guinea pigs; collections of all the birds who have the hooked meat-ripping beaks, the pointy fish-spearing beaks, the bijou seed-winkling beaks, the big round night eyes, the really bright feathers, and so on and so forth.

Basically, all the possible combinations of stuffed animals you could imagine, the State Darwin Museum in Moscow has ‘em, and a few more to boot.

Stuffed dogs at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow
That’s a lot of stuffed dogs.

Which should make it both one of the creepier and, after the first room or so, one of the more boring museums in the world, but it isn’t. In fact The State Darwin Museum in Moscow is now Mama’s new favourite museum, both on a personal level and on the basis of somewhere good to take us kids.

And we’re pretty keen on it too. Here’s why.

Firstly, it’s entirely devoted to explaining the theory of evolution. This is both interesting and, in Mama’s opinion, important. Interesting because Mama is the sort of person who likes an in depth look at things, and that’s not something that many museums have the luxury of giving. Important because she sends Stupendous Big Brother to not one but two church schools in not one but two different languages. She feels the need to nip any odd notions about the development of life on earth that he might pick up, because, say, his (English) teacher has told him that that’s what he believes, firmly in the bud.

Hitherto Mama has been using the children’s non-fiction books aimed at explaining such things, assisted only by the odd half a room display in the NHM. This makes it uphill work because, well, the biblical tale is just a better story than one which really requires you to grasp the concept of deep time and generations upon generations of living organisms first. We have difficulty understanding that Mama had a life before we appeared, so it’s not an idea that just takes a few minutes to sink in.

But now she can (repeatedly) take us to a museum which exhaustively covers all the main points in a memorably visual manner. So well done is it, in fact, that Mama, whose Russian is not up to long scientific explanatory placards and who is a wishy washy humanities graduate to boot, had no difficulty working out what the point of each section is. This, she thinks, bodes well for getting it across to kids. She and my Stupendous Big Brother certainly had a number of what looked like spirited and interested discussions while looking at the exhibits.

If the stuffed animals aren’t enough, there’s also a vast collection of animal paintings on display. Mama is dubious about the artistic value of these, but my Stupendous Big Brother was very taken with them indeed.

Stuffed big cats at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow
Cats and their art.

I simply basked in the fact that most of them were entirely visible to someone of my height, nobody told me off for leaning on the glass and that there was plenty of room to gambol around looking for the horses.

Horse evolution at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow
Horses through the ages!

It’s not that there’s no English, mind. Each room has a paragraph or two in that to get you oriented, should you feel the need.

Another thing Mama thought was particularly well done about the State Darwin Museum were the interactive touches that have been added to the basic glass cases, and I have to say that I heartily concur. They seem to have made a real effort to do things which bring the displays to life, and really add to what you are seeing, rather than distract or, worse, detract from them.

Mama thought, for example, that the little video screens showing clips of the animals in action in the section all about animals and their native habitats was inspired, and not just because they had put them at kids’ eye height. I liked the buttons you could press throughout the galleries to hear the sounds that different animals make. And the animal jigsaws, especially the ones where the aim was to focus on the massive differences in feet, mouths or limbs between different types of animals. And the fact that all of these things had boxes next to them to make them easy for me to reach if they weren’t at my height already. Stupendous Big Brother liked the computer games. Name that animal! Match the animal to their tracks! Match the animal to their habitat!

Interactive exhibit at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow
“Who did this?”

There’s also a children’s play area for the under 7s. It has nothing whatsoever to do with animals, Darwin or evolution – it’s based on those big soft shapes you can move around, stack, build a fort out of and throw at each other, but that in itself provides a nice break and refreshes you for a final push round the museum.

The two interactive show stoppers, though, are on the top floor. The first is the case containing the roaring, mooing, stomping and flapping animated dinosaurs, which are switched on on the hour every hour. Otherwise, the dinosaur section is not extensive (and, surprisingly, the models seem to be made of some kind of plastic rather than stuffed), but this is pretty jolly cool to make up for it.

Dinosaurs at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow
Dinosaur rrrrooooaaaaarrrr!

By far the most exciting thing we have EVER come across in a museum, however, is the giant TV screen on the wall.

At first you just stand on the designated spot and admire your filmed self staring up at a giant TV screen on the wall in the midst of a bunch of glass cases full of stuffed animals. And then, suddenly, one of those animals COMES TO LIFE. And! Meanders over to where your screen self is and if you keep staring upwards, while reaching out, you can see yourself touching and interacting with the animals on the screen. It is FABULOUS. We played with lemurs, a huge tortoise, a deer, a lion, an alpaca, the lemurs again, and yet more lemurs (we liked the lemurs). Cannot recommend it highly enough. The only way it could have been better was if we’d had the actual animals with us instead.

Also on this floor is the section devoted to human evolution. Mama, once again, would like to congratulate the curators for their sheer genius in the placement of this. Nothing like making people walk through the crushing evidence in the two floors below before you hit them with the ‘difficult’ monkey man aspect.

Hell with that, I say. It’s the evolution of horses bit you should be checking out. Radical!

Early man at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow
That man is NAKED Mama!

Anyway, you might be thinking that it is time to go about now, but that would mean you miss all the stuff in the other building, which is connected to this one via a tunnel in the basement. They’ve got a whole bunch of experiences there – a planetarium, various 3D, 4D and, I dunno, 5D booths, and some kind of dinosaur labyrinth discovery trail which looked very exciting, all of which Mama declined to pay extra for on this occasion, although she hasn’t ruled it out for subsequent trips as it wasn’t, she says, outrageously expensive.

But for us it was still worth trekking over for the live insects, including giant cockroaches, grasshoppers, colourful beetles, butterflies, and for the variety huge hairy spiders.

I don’t know how it is, but when Stupendous Big Brother is faced with a zooful of animals, he insists on charging round at top speed, never spending too long in front of one cage. I think he is worried about missing out on something. But give him an attraction with a more limited number of creatures and he will spend hours in front of each one, especially if they fly. Luckily, I was also quite interested, and when I wasn’t they had a particularly nifty touch screen picture puzzle thing, which only needed Mama to commandeered a chair to be fully accessible. We also skipped the rooms on the history of natural history through sheer lack of time.

We didn’t miss out on refreshments though. The State Darwin Museum has not one but two cafes, both of which were open. The first is more the sort of place you can buy a hot lunch, although Mama was also delighted that they let, nay, dragged us in and offered us a spare table when they saw us eating in the (perfectly comfortable actually and opposite a LIVE FISH TANK) seating area outside instead. The second is more of a cakes and coffee affair, and dedicated to that famous naturalist, Janis Joplin. Mmmmmmm, cake, say I. Mmmmmmmm, coffee, says Mama. If, for some reason, you are not up for the ones in the museum, there are plenty of other cafes on the walk back to the metro.

So we had a good time. Mama’s favourite bit? The fact that in the whole museum there is not one mention of creationism. No pandering to the existence of this anti-science nonsense whatsoever. It’s great. She says. I think what edged it for my Stupendous Big Brother and I though was that the shop has a decent selection of reasonably priced plastic animal toys, and Mama was so delighted by our day that she let loose with the rubles and bought us some.

The only downside Mama can possibly think of is that you might feel squeamish about the sheer numbers of animals that have, at some point, been killed to furnish the displays. Mama offers up the opinion that, well, what’s done is done, and at least the museum is making use of the taxidermy it has inherited in a positive and educational manner. Arguably, too, it is a more ethical day out that some of the live animal entertainments she has seen in Moscow and the UK, especially the ones that are run for profit. No matter how well looked after the captive beasts on display are. But as ever, that is a decision you will have to make for yourself.

All in all, this is clearly a museum that has its eye firmly on the patronage of the under 7s, as well as being extremely appealing to the over 40s. There is even a nappy changing table in the toilets. As a result it was busyish, but still not rammed in the way that such a place would be in, say, London in the summer holidays. Things might be different in winter, of course, when it’s less attractive to be outside, and people have not packed their young off to the datcha with the grandparents for the duration.

We may well find out, because Mama plans to take us here pretty much whenever we visit Moscow from now onwards. She thinks you should go too if you are ever in town. She thinks, in fact, that all school children everywhere should be flown in specially whenever they get to the relevant section of the science curriculum. Best. Field trip. Evah.

Especially as, rumour has it, they let you handle the cockroaches.

More Information

The State Darwin Museum website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say (at great length) about evolution and creationism.

Address: 117292, Moscow, 57/1 Vavilova Ulitsa

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm. Closed Monday and the last Friday of every month.

Price: 300 rubles (£5) for adults for the two buildings. 250 rubles (£4) if you just want the main exhibition area. Kids over 7 are 100 rubles (£1.50) for both buildings. A photography pass is 100 rubles.

By Metro: Akedemichiskaya (orange line). Be on the front of the train if you are heading out from the centre and leave by that exit. Turn right. Go up the right hand stairs. There should be a large sign directing you (in English as well as Russian) to take the first left. Walk up that street for about ten minutes and the museum is on your left.

By Bus/ Tram: You can get the 119 bus from Akedemichiskaya or the 14 and 39 trams from Univesitet (red line) to the stop Ulista Dimitriova Ulyanova.

 

Cruise past the Kremlin on the Moscow River with CCK Riverboats

Aaaaaaaaaaah. That’s the sound of Mama relaxing as she steps onto a Moscow riverboat run by CCK  (Столичная Судоходная Компания or Capital Riverboat Tour Company), finding a seat with a good view and preparing to drift along, carried, at a suitably sedate pace, effortlessly past sights of historic and aesthetic importance for over an hour.

Riverboat on the Moscow River with St Saviour Catrhedral in the background
Sailing down the river

Or at least that’s how it was before she had kids. Before she had kids, Mama did these cruises down the Moscow River on a regular-ish basis, at first romantically with my not-yet Papa, and then at least as often as friends and family from back in the UK visited her. But she’d never tried it with children before last summer. Passive sitting and taking calm enjoyment in our surroundings didn’t strike her as really us. Also, you may have noticed that she has this thing about my Wonderful Big Brother, me and water.

Still, Mama also believes that the summer holidays are a long time to spend without regular bouts of organised fun, and also that getting out and about makes everybody appreciate some down time the next day. Plus, it’s hot in Moscow in the summer. River breezes are always welcome. So she decided to give it a whirl.

And in fact, when we actually got on the board we discovered that the particular boat she had flagged down had had the bow end downstairs converted into a children’s play area with various craft opportunities, toys, a wendy house, a trampoline and best of all, a dedicated staff member employed to play with the children while she kicked back and ignored the mayhem that ensued, and we ignored the fact we were on a boat at all.

These special child-friendly boats set off from piers near Novospaskii Bridge at 11.40am and 3.30pm and Kievskii Railway and Metro Station at 1.40pm and 5.30pm each day. The ordinary cruises run every twenty minutes from the same places and they all have a number of other stopping points on the way, notably ones in Gorky Park. You can get on wherever you like and do the one way trip all in one go, which is a flat rate and costs the same wherever you embark. Or you can buy (more expensive) tickets which allow you to hop on and off all day. There is also a round trip option from the Kievskii Station pier.

Tickets are easy to get hold of, being sold at the kiosks attached to each landing station. Most people seem to prefer getting on at Kievskaya, saving the excitements of the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square for towards the end. Mama, of course, usually does it the other way. Well, it’s quieter, and has she mentioned she used to work in a building overlooking Red Square and the south-east corner of the Kremlin yet? Sometimes she forgets that that’s the best bit for everybody else.

The Kremlin Armoury from the Moscow River
Kremlin!

Having abandoned the small people, you can hang out in the small cafe on board but the place you really want to be is on the more open top deck, hanging over the sides, taking photographs. There isn’t any commentary, so read on for what Mama thinks are the highlights to look out for. Assuming you start more or less where she does.

The main attraction at the start of the route is the Novospasskii Monastery. Founded in the early 14th Century it one of the oldest religious institutions in Moscow, and has strong ties to the Romanov dysnasty. You can visit it and enjoy the contrast between the busy city and the tranquility here before or (if you insist on doing the tour the wrong way round) after your cruise. Or you can just sail past and photograph the traditionally white walls, the onion domes and the wedding-cake-inspiration bell tower.

Those big empire state buidingesque blocks you may already have seen elsewhere around the capital? Those are the Stalin Skyscrapers. There are seven in all. They are called the seven sisters, because, why not? One is part of the University and you’ll see that later, one is the foreign ministry, but the one you’ll encounter first on the river is an apartment block. Nice, huh? Cameras out!

Soon after that and just before Red Square, you’ll pass by the a large pile of rubble that was the former excessively ugly Rossiya hotel. Legend has it that it got to be such an eyesore because someone offered Stalin the choice of plans and he scrawled his signature so it went over two of them. Nobody then had the balls to ask him which he’d meant so… Personally, Mama just thinks it was the victim of architecture. She thinks it’s probably a good thing it has gone, but that really depends what they replace it with. You can take a picture of it if you do the tour when something has gone up and it is interesting.

Then it’s St Basil’s and Red Square, the back of. It looks even gaudier in winter, Mama tells me, which I imagine is quite a feat. It’s pretty colourful now.

St Basil's from the Moscow River
Red Square!

And next to that it’s the Kremlin. From this side you can see right over what elsewhere are large imposing red walls to the palaces and cathedrals beyond, a view which is only available from the south bank or the river itself. Enjoy it. Photograph it.

The Kremlin from the Moscow River
Kremlin again!

The Christ the Saviour Cathedral is the large white Orthodox building with the very large golden onion domes coming up right after that. It’s a copy. The original was knocked down to make way for a HUGE monument to the ever-popular Revolution. However, it never got built because it turns out that HUGE monuments to Revolution are too heavy for the somewhat soggy banks of the Moscow River. So naturally it became an outdoor swimming pool instead. Papa used to go. He says it was quite chilly in winter. Quite why they decided to get rid of such an excellent sort of facility and rebuild the church again is rather lost on me, but they did. Mama says it’s a statement. It is certainly very photogenic. And popular with all female punk rock bands I’m told.

St Saviour's Cathedral from the Moscow River
Cathedral!

On the other side is a very grey building in what you will clearly recognise is the Constructivist style of architecture. This is an apartment block known as the House on the Embankment. It was built as a sort of especially fabulous communist living space for the Soviet elite of the 1930s, but it is famous, Mama carefully does NOT tell me, for how many of those people were disappeared in the Stalinist purges later on, with over half of the five hundred apartments left deserted following the arrest of their residents.

The House on the Embankment from the Moscow River
Grim Apartment Block is Grim!

More cheerfully, a bit further on is the former Red October chocolate factory, although it has now been closed down. This is a shame. Not only did the smell of cooking chocolate add a pleasant something to the atmosphere, Mama says, but she liked to go and spend lots money at the factory shop whenever she had an excuse. Still, you can still buy the brand in the shops (do, in fact) and the building is still there and it’s very red. Mama likes to have a picture of twenty of it, but your mileage may vary.

Red October Chocolate Factory from the Moscow River
Chocolate!

By now you should be able to see a large statue of a man steering an oddly truncated old fashioned ship into the horizon, waving a gold scroll around his head. Sometimes there are fountains spurting all around. That’s Peter the Great, ruler of Russia some time previously. Bit of a naval enthusiast I understand, although it’s odd that Moscow wanted the world’s eighth biggest statue to be of him given how much he hated the place, according to Mama. There is what Mama says is a probably apocryphal rumour that the artist only flogged it to Moscow when it was rejected as a commemoration of Christopher Columbus elsewhere, not that it stops her repeating it. Still, the river is one of the few places you can actually get a decent view, so snap away while you can.

Peter the Great Statue from the Moscow River
Peter!

The big boxy building next to there statue is, in part, the New Tretyakov Art Gallery. You will not want to photograph it but do consider visiting. Mama is a huge fan. Surrounding it is a parkette called Museon which you may be able to see contains many many statues. Half of them are fallen Soviet icons, originally dumped here after people revenged theselves for the previous 70 years on the inanimate features of key Communist figures, and the rest are not. It is, apparently, becoming a trendy hangout place.

Then it’s Gorky Park, which some of you may remember from old Cold War thrillers. Mama says. Recently it has been extensively remodelled and is also hugely popular. Observe the large number of people promenading along the embankment. At some point you will go under a rather fabulous looking bridge, which may well have people sitting on the very top of it. This just goes to show you really are in Russia, where nobody every accused anyone of pandering to the anti Health and Safety gone mad movement.

People sitting on a bridge over the Moscow River
Do Not Try This At Home Folks!

Then it’s more of Gorky Park. And still yet more. And it goes on. And on. And turns into the extensive wooded area they call the Sparrow Hills for reasons which now escape Mama. And basically it’s trees nearly all the way to Kievskaya after that. Look out for the University rising gothically above the leaves, and also the modern skyscrapers of some business park or another that has been built after Mama’s time, and people bathing in the Moscow River from the urban beaches. On your right, at some point you will see a stadium. Mama assumes some people might be mildly interested in the information that it is going to be one of the 2018 World Cup stadiums. Lots of photography options to pick from.

Skyscrapers from the Moscow River
Money Money Money!

For kids, when you finally look up from the toys and realise you are on a moving water-borne vehicle, which happened to us around the time we got to the endless tree section, there is a lot of fun to be had in scrambing around the different deck levels, going and hanging off the back of the boat watching the water churn, admiring the bucket and mop art installations and begging biscuits off the other tourists. People think we are charming. Mama is often surprised by this.

Anyway, eventually, you will get to the end of the route, at a pier just beyond the Crystal Bridge at Kievskaya Railway Station. It will have taken you around an hour and a half if you did the full route with the CCK riverboats. As you can imagine, other river tours are available, notably one which does a circular route from Gorky Park run by the Raddison Hotel group. Mama suspects that it might be a more luxurious experience, but she holds fast to the one she is used to especially as the Raddison one does not, as far as she is aware, have special facilities for kids.

But however you choose to cruise, she highly recommends that if you are a tourist in Moscow you take a trip down the river.

More Information

The CCK riverboat website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the monument to Peter the Great in Moscow.

Times: Novospasskii Bridge: 11am to 7.50pm. Kievskii Station: 11.30am to 9pm at 20 minute intervals. The trip takes about 1.5 hours.

The child-friendly boats set of from Novospaskii Bridge at 11.40am and 3.30pm and Kievskaya Railway and Metro Station at 1.40pm and 5.30pm.

Prices: The one way tour costs 600 roubles for adults and 400 roubles for children over 6. The hop on hop off version costs 1000 roubles for adults and 700 roubles for children. The round trips are 700 roubles for adults and 500 rubles for children. There are also family tickets.

By Metro: For Novospasskii Bridge use Proletarskaya (purple line) or Krestyanskaya Zastava (light green line) – both basically the same station. For Kievskii Station use Kievskaya (brown, light blue and dark blue lines).

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Cruising past the Kremlin on the Moscow River

Red Square, Moscow

Red Square. We enter at one end, and get our first glimpses of so many iconic sights around the edges. Well, my first glimpses. The others have all done this before.

Red Square, Moscow
Big, huh?

There are the soaring brick-red walls sloping high up one side, protecting the Kremlin. These are cornered by the thin round (red) towers, topped with big ruby-red stars. In front of that there’s the squat blocky browny-red building you aren’t allowed to get to close to because someone called Lenin is inside, and the long lines of stone steps fanning out either side. At the back end is the Gothic blood-red splendour of the National History Museum. Next to that there’s a small coral church, and then all down the other side is a surprisingly unred beige affair, also fairly burdened with busy architectural detailing, inside which you can find the former State Department Store GUM.

GUM, Red Square, Moscow
It’s not red!

And best of all, at the front, there is the riot of colour, thankfully with red to the fore, that is St Basil’s cathedral.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
This is not the Kremlin.

Actually, Mama says that St Basil’s isn’t even called St Basil’s, technically speaking. But then she also claims that Red Square is so named because ‘red’ and ‘beautiful’ have the same root in Russian, rather than because of the scarlet nature of its surroundings. I say it’s only a matter of time before someone overrules her and paints GUM a soothing shade of pink. Mama counters with the information that someone called Stalin has already done much the same, when he switched the previously whitewashed Kremlin walls to painted red, for much the same simplistic reasons.

She leaves out the fact that the walls are, underneath the paint, red brick.

After what feels like three thousand hours, we are only just in the centre, and wilting in the blazing sunlight. Red Square is huge, very open, ever so slightly curved and covered in extraordinarily hard-to-walk-on cobbles. Which also have mysterious straight lines in different colours painted all over them. Mama reckons they are lines for organising either parades or to guide the erection of stages for some concert or other, which are the two things that Red Square is for, when it isn’t covered by people in what pass for wide smiles in Russia or, for the foreigners, fur hats with ear flaps or a T-shirt with Putin on the front, standing around mugging for the cameras in front of the stuff round the edges.

Mama is not at all sure how she feels about the prospect of Putin’s face relacing the hammer and sickle as the edgy ironic souvenir for the discerning tourist, but by and large I am guessing something negative here.

Anyway, it’s a bit hot. The only time Mama has ever found Red Square a nice place to hang out in the height of summer was on her wedding day, when she indulged in the Russian custom of taking her big white dress and her wedding party out for a stroll around all the most photogenic spots in town. Yes, Mama, too, clearly has hankerings after princessdom, for all her eyebrow-raising at my insistence on wearing my poufy pink tutu skirt to the playground, and her wedding photos therefore include shots of her daintily swigging champagne in front of a brightly coloured onion domes in a large Disneyesque ballgown. Cool. Someone should have told her that the ones of her with a cigarette dangling out of her mouth are just a tad trashy though. Real princesses do not smoke. Where anyone can photograph them.

Not that the cobbles are any easier to walk on in the middle of a blizzard. Mama tells me. Or when they are slick with rain. It’s a bit of a slog in almost any weather she says. I dunno, I made Papa pick me up around now and did the rest of the walk in comfort.

After a brief break while we do our own photography shoot, we resume our hike towards St Basil’s. Mama thought we might enjoy scrambling around it.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
Onion domes!

She was wrong. In my case. St Basil’s is an odd kind of structure. It started when a tsar, promisingly called Ivan the Terrible, started tacking churches onto an existing structure every time he won a battle in a spat he was having with a neighbour. Having sealed Moscow’s supremacy, he decided to set the thing in stone, and although the architect did not just slavishly replace the original wooden buildings, the best that most people can say about the end result is that it is ‘unique’. There is a story that the architect had his eyes put out by the aptly named tsar so he could not build anything similar again. Mama says this is doubtful, but it just goes to show.

I can’t blame the gaudiness on the bad taste of the original builders though. Apparently that came about when Russians discovered new pigments a couple of hundred years later. The original was much more inclined towards just showing off this exciting new building material called (red) ‘brick’, which, incidentally, is how the Kremlin came to be surrounded by the stuff. The whitewash was to disguise this fact.

The older a church is in Russia, the plainer it is, by and large. In direct contrast to how it is in the UK. History is strange.

Anyway, later restorations have stuck to the more vibrant colourscheme, with just a few areas and a model on the inside to show how it might have looked before they emptied the paintbox all over it. Mama, the lapsed protestant, approves of the murals inside no matter how modern. It’s like, she says, someone took the illuminations from the margins of medieval manuscripts and extended them all over the walls and ceilings. Nice. And I have to say that the outside is certainly a cheerful sight. Mama says it’s easy to speculate that such brightness is needed in the winter to perk people up through the gloom. But then, she adds, you get to the depths of February, and the skies are a bright blue, the sun is shining down and bouncing off the plentiful white snow, and St Basil’s then moves from being merely loud to almost unbearably dazzling.

But it isn’t my artistic sensibilities which made our visit a trial. No, it’s the nature of the inside. There are Orthodox churches which have wide open spaces inside, but St Basil’s is more of the tradition of a collection of intimate chapels spread across several levels, with small connecting passageways and even more claustrophobic twisting staircases. And it’s very dark, with few windows and dim artificial lighting. Oddly enough, this only makes the gold leaf richness of the iconostases stand out even more. All this gave me the willies. Mama did not help by following us up the stairs making ghost noises. Nor did the male voice choirette, whose traditional chanting from an indeterminate location added yet another layer of spook.

I spent the visit clutching anxiously at Papa’s trouser legs shouting ‘where’s Mama?’ whenever she went out of view to take yet another photograph. But the others seemed to be enjoying themselves.

After the terror of St Basil’s, I congratulate Mama on her decision to leave visiting the mausoleum for another few years. She reckons there’s a definite judgement call to be made in deciding when your children will happily celebrate the ghoulishness of going to look at an actual dead body in an almost blacked-out room surrounded by fully armed guards who will be abrupt if you pause to try to take a better look, or, heaven forbid, talk, or whether they will have nightmares for six months as a result. The smell is something too. Mama says. This does mean that you don’t get to see all the other graves built into the walls of the Kremlin, but Mama feels that sightseeing can be a bit full of looking at the headstones of dead people as it is. And the chances of my having any idea of who they might be are slim, so I am good with missing out.

Lenin's Mausoleum, Red Square, Moscow
Lenin lives here.

Instead, both Mama and I recommend a visit to GUM. It is, these days, a luxury mall, not quite as out there in terms of outrageous conspicuous consumption as its sister round the corner TsUM, but nevertheless not somewhere you are going to want to go and shop at unless you actually like spending more on a Hermes tie than you would back home. But it’s a lovely space. Built well before this Revolution everybody keeps talking about, it is something of an engineering marvel, with it’s impressive curved glass roof topped with even more impressive glass domes, which have withstood not only time but also huge amounts of snow being dropped on them every year. Mama says you should spend a lot of time both looking up and going up, because the galleries and bridges overlooking the central spaces, and the way they interact are also rather attractive.

Inside GUM, Red Square, Moscow
Roof!

Mama also thinks the cafes on the overhangs on the top floor look rather fun, not least because in summer they mist the air around the tables with a fine spray of water in order to try to counterbalance the lack of air conditioning. Seems to work. We did not find the atmosphere inside oppressive, despite the glass roof and the excessive heat outside. If you don’t fancy that, there is at least one excellent ice cream kiosk near the main southern entrance, which will allow you to indulge in a Muscovite tradition. Especially if you have one in winter. Mama likes the pistachio or melon flavoured cones. I’d go for the strawberry ones myself.

Air con in GUM, Red Square, Moscow
Misty!

Other than that, there’s usually something to look at in GUM, like the window displays of idealised life from back when this was the biggest and most well-stocked Soviet department store, or the carpet of flowers down the left hand aisle. Aside from all the things in the shops.

Flower carpt in GUM, Red Square, Moscow
Flowers!

Basically, this is the space I enjoyed roaming out of the three available on Red Square. You can keep your historical monuments, and your unshaded outside urban fields. Shopping malls. That’s where it’s at. Most people seem to disagree with me on this one though.

More Information

St Basil’s website (English).

Lenin’s Mausoleum website (English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the mystery of the Egyption Pharaoh at Niagra Falls.

Opening: Red Square is closed when Lenin’s Mausoleum is open, which is Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 10am to 1pm. Red Square is also closed for selected public holidays depending on whether it is being used for some kind of display. You can usually get a view of square from the corners even if it is closed.

St Basil’s is open daily 10am to 7pm in summer and 11am to 5pm in winter.

Price: Red Square is free. Lenin’s Mausoleum is free and St Basil’s is 250 rubles (about £4) for adults and 50 rubles (less than £1) for children over 7.

Getting there: The nearest metro station is Okhotny Ryad (red line, with connecting stations on the green and dark blue lines called Tverskaya and Ploshad Revolutsii respectively), which, if you get the exit right, brings you up just behind the square on the other side of the National History Museum. Head for the (restored) gates with the small chapel set into them.

The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, Moscow

I think you might have to be a bit older than me to properly appreciate why the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, devoted to the Soviet and Russian space programme, is so utterly fascinating for Mama and Papa.

Soviet space programme mural
Space! The final frontier!

Currently I am quite concerned about some of my toys. They are not here. I keep asking Mama if they are in my far far away home. She says yes and I am reassured for another ten minutes. Mama is delighted. Not, I hasten to reassure you because I am undergoing angst, but because she thinks I have understood something important about the abstract concept of place. What I say is that you get 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 have a short bus ride to go, you would have to be considerably dim, or perhaps, you know, two or something, not to figure it out.

But space, its vastness, its inhospitable nature and the difficulty of finding a way in and how to stay there successfully escapes me utterly. It escapes my Cosmic Big Brother a bit too really. Mama blames his fixation on animals, and also modern life. Mama, who was born a long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long time ago still remembers the excitement of some impossible new milestone being reached, and has some grasp of the sheer effort involved in reaching it. Well, you would if the height of excitement is watching snooker on a black and white TV.

Technology these days, however, is so sufficiently close to magic, that she is not convinced that we will ever quite understand what a big deal throwing a big metal object out of the Earth’s atmosphere and getting it back again in more or less one piece actually is. Mama had a jolly good stab at getting it across anyway, using up all her inconsiderable knowledge of physics and engineering in expanding on just why every. Single. One of the exhibits in the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics is just so damn cool. By about half way round my Cosmic Big Brother had knuckled under and was actually taking an interest.

He still liked the stuffed representations of Belka and Strelka, the two dogs who made it back, and the model space toilets best though.

Belka and Strelka in the (stuffed) flesh.
Belka and Strelka in the (stuffed) flesh.

What excites Mama is that the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics has exhibits related to (*cough* nearly *cough*) ALL of the great space achievements of the last seventy years in one glorious building. The Soviets and Russians don’t have to try to impress you, they just have to empty out the contents of their space programme cupboards a bit. You don’t even notice the lack of footprints on the moon. Not when you have not one but two different types of nifty *cough* unmanned *cough* landing craft in front of you instead.

The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics main gallery
Shiny shiny shiny

In addition, the four first flights are fully documented, there are displays devoted to engineering genius, insights into training methods, details of life on board a space ship, dioramas of dramatic landings, examples of probes to near satellites and the ones further away, and lots of stuff from both space stations, which in the case of MIR is also available in a walk through mock-up. Look out for the aforementioned toilets, the upright sleeping arrangements, the computer stuck to the ceiling, and the fish tank.

The museum is visually stunning too. The rockets, satellites, landing crafts and probes which litter the place are design objects d’art in their own right, Mama reckons, and exceedingly shiny to boot. The first room you enter has lighting designed to simulate a particularly impressive starry starry night, which makes all the metal objects twinkle and the marble floor gleam. The main exhibition area has a space mural painted all over the ceiling, and with it’s ground floor overlooked by a mezzanine level of aluminum walkways Mama almost felt that at any moment she would be ushered into a spacecraft and countdown would commence. Thrilling!

First gallery in the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Shiny shiny shiny

So it’s a fun space for an exploring pre-schooler to roam around, even if the stuff on display is just so much pretty background. They also have puffy armchairs at strategic points for you to dive headfirst onto so you can lie and stare at the planets whirling by overhead. And of course I was thrilled by the interactive touch screens. No idea what they were showing me, but wheeee! Stab stab stab stab stab. My Cosmic Big Brother liked the one which allowed you to virtually explore Mir, and Mama  played around with the one where you could look up international participants in the programme. Yay! Britain had one! Go the UK! Of course, the screens were so far up the walls that Mama or Papa had to heft me high to reach them, but my parents need the exercise so it’s fine.

Just don’t touch the rope barriers. There are many many babushka docents hovering and they will come and tell you not to. This is a shame, because the rope barriers are splendidly thick, hugely velvety and a rich blue colour. My Cosmic Big Brother was totally unable to stop himself from stroking and I was constantly drawn to unhook them, despite the constant reminders. You are also not allowed to put your hands on the glass cases whilst gawping at the things inside. Which you really would think we would have grasped by the end. On the upside, the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics is not inclined to trust its visitors with important objects in too close a reach, so only the fixtures and fittings were ever in danger from our questing little hands. This sort of thing makes Mama relaxed and happy in a museum.

What doesn’t make Mama happy is trying to take surreptitious photos. You are allowed to take pictures, but only if you buy a special photography pass. Mama did not realise she might really really want to until she was too far in, a mistake as Mama is an indifferent photographer at the best of times, and that is not while trying to press the button whilst hiding behind Papa and pretending to examine some moon rocks. Do not repeat her mistake. Buy the pass. You will want to take a lot of snaps.

Other things Mama found interesting: the wall of cosmonauts, which is constantly updated – the latest went up for his first mission in March of this year. The film loop of footage surrounding the first flights – clips of take offs, engineers fiddling with equipment, and the great dog/human cosmonauts themselves waving, of course, but also shots of ordinary people’s reactions to the news. The personal touch to the commemoration of the great engineering brains – not just their medals or items from their professional lives, but photos of them relaxing at the datcha and their favourite chess board and so on. The examples of the cosmonauts’ food – especially the nifty fridge, with all the fruit and vegetables tied carefully down. And the large numbers of oil paintings apparently done by the second man in space, who seems to have been particularly into Shishkinesque landscapes. It’s nice to know that even cosmonauts have hobbies.

Engineering genius on display
Engineering genius on display

The only slight niggles Mama would like to share are that the cafe was closed and the shop extremely abbreviated. The lack of a cafe was particularly annoying as there also isn’t even an ice cream cart anywhere near the museum following the city authority’s recent rather over enthusiastic crack down on all manner of street food vendors. And we all know how Mama gets when she doesn’t have regular infusions of coffee.

The museum does 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 has been admiring it for years, but never made it into the museum. Do not dither in the same way yourself. If you are in Moscow, you must go and see the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. It’s important, it’s interesting, it’s beautiful and it’s really really well air-conditioned.

The rocket sculpture above the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Wheeeeeeeeeeee!

More information

The museum website.

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 – 200 rubles (about £2), Children over seven (and other concessions) – 50 rubles (50p), Children under seven – free. The photography pass (which you MUST get) is 200 rubles (about £2).

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 you choose, you can’t miss the museum. Head for the rocket.

By other means: Don’t be silly.

Wander Mum

The Kremlin, Moscow, Russia

Mama thinks that a trip to the Moscow Kremlin with small children is more of an endurance tourism experience than an actually enjoyable outing for the whole family, although she concedes that other people might find it more interesting than she does after the number of visits she has paid to it over the years.

Certainly it seems to surprise people. There are trees inside, and flowers, and most of the buildings are built in a distinctly classical mould as well as being quite colourful. And the main focus of a trip there is a square surrounded by a number of cathedrals, used by Russia’s Tsars for, variously, coronations, weddings, their tombs and personal worship. A bright yellow neo-classical building inside the Moscow Kremlin But to start with, there will be a massive queue to buy tickets although it might have helped a bit if Mama and Papa hadn’t turned up just before the ticket offices had a (scheduled) twenty-minute ‘technical break’ around lunchtime.

It’s good, then, that there is the whole of Alexandrovskii Sad, the park running along one side of the Kremlin wall, to hang out in while you wait. There are plenty of benches to sit on, trees and the flowerbeds for the kids to play hide and seek round, and you can even venture along to the fountain area in summer if you don’t mind your smalls getting thoroughly soaked while they dance around in the spray from the one with the horses with every other Russian under the age of fifteen.

Mama does a bit, although it is worth pointing out that Moscow in the summer can be blisteringly hot, so sometimes this is a bit of a godsend.

More soberly, you can have a look at the tomb of the unknown soldier and the eternal flame, commemorating those who fell in World War Two, called, in Russia, the Great Patriotic War, which gives you an idea of just how big a deal this is.

With 27 million dead, there is a lot of commemorating to do and so if you are still waiting for your tickets on the hour, this is where the Russian equivalent of the changing the guard takes place, every hour. Miss this and there is a good chance you might see instead a wedding party coming to lay flowers. Basically, Mama’s advice is to take mobiles and wander off while someone else stands in the queue. There’s plenty to keep the youngsters occupied with. A guard outside the Moscow Kremlin Except the problem is that all this waiting around made me well well overdue for my nap, but all the excitement meant I refused to even contemplate it once we got inside. I therefore had a truly epic meltdown on the main square inside the Kremlin, the one flanked by the four cathedrals.

Tourists were taking photos and everything, I was that impressively cross.

Which led to Mama and Papa getting told off by a plain clothes secret serviceman. Lying on the ground, screaming and drumming your heels brings the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute. Apparently. A cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin Trying to tour the cathedrals with two five-and-unders will also make Mama appreciate the value of the National Trust’s strategies for dealing with restless children. It’s amazing how much more attractive the idea of playing ‘hunt the small stuffed animals the curators have placed in blindingly obvious hiding places round the historical monument’ becomes when the alternative is listening to Papa tell the story of the boy-Tsar who committed suicide by throwing himself off the Kremlin walls. Look! Here is his tomb!

Cue another incipient meltdown. Mama retreated briskly from any attempt to admire the icons and plied me with sweets before we got more than a hard stare from one of the attendants.

Of course, Papa will eventually get told off again anyway for bringing the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute by sitting on the grass with two untidy looking children next to the toilets in full view of the official presidential offices while waiting for Mama to have a wee.

Mama, mark you, felt that the toilets in the Kremlin brought the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute. Someone at some point decided to install the latest in toilet technology, consisting of eight stalls of supposedly automatic self-cleaning cubicles. Look no hands! You don’t even have to flush the loo yourself.

Unfortunately, Mama reported that given the amount of piss swilling around on the floor and the number of attendants needed to manually override the automated mechanism allowing the next punter in, this wonderful system doesn’t work very well.

And there is another big queue.

Naturally there also isn’t a hint of a baby changing area, so it is probably a good thing that the secret serviceman arrived to chide Papa after I had brought the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute by mooning the government while having my nappy changed outside.

My Super Big Brother and I did like the formal gardens, where you can get one of Moscow’s excellent ice creams (but no other kind of refreshment) and wander around looking for insects on the trees and admiring the view of the Moscow River and the presidential helicopter pad.

The helicopter pad inside the Moscow Kremlin

Mama says she used to work in one of the buildings in the background of this picture, but Mama says that about a lot of buildings in Moscow, usually with a misty look in her eye. I am sceptical. She certainly doesn’t seem to do very much with her days apart from follow me around and wash clothes. What could she have been up to?

Oh! And wait until you try to cross the (empty) roads inside without using the somewhat arbitrarily situated zebra crossings. The whistle blast from one of the nearby guards is quite something.

Mama says it is totally worth hanging around and watching tourists jump out of their skin and look around wildly again and again and again. She says putting a sign up to explain what you are supposed to do would spoil everybody’s fun, and I have to say I agree.

We also quite enjoyed the large bell and huge cannon on display near the main square although it turns out you are not allowed to climb on them.

You can scramble over the ones by the entrance though, so we did quite a bit of that while Mama admired the huge building opposite, the only one that Mama says actually looks like it belongs in the control centre of the Former Soviet Union. Mama says that actually what it is mostly for is watching ballet. She says it’s quite good. Ballet! Like Angelina Ballerina does! The dresses! The twirls! The Soviet Union must have been a fun place to live. Oh! Mama has just spat some of her coffee out. Hang on. She appears to be choking…The ballet building in the Moscow Kremlin However, on balance, the Moscow Kremlin is one of the least toddler friendly places on the planet. Mama says. She does not recommend it for (those with) small children at all and she doesn’t think that going to see the bits we missed (you have to pay extra), the Armoury, where they keep the crown jewels and such, would improve matters either, although I think she may be wrong about this. It sounds exceedingly shiny. The Moscow Kremlin from the river

More information

The official website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about James Bond in the Cold War.

Address: Moscow, Russia 103073

Opening: 10am (ticket offices open at 9.30) to 5pm. The Moscow Kremlin is closed on Thursdays and public holidays. Entrance to the Armoury is via timed slots at 10am, 12 noon, 2.30pm and 4.30pm.

Price: 500 rubles for adults (about £5) and free for children under 16. The Armoury is extra: 700 roubles (£7) for adults.

By metro: The closest metro is Bibliateka Imani Lenina/Alexandrovskii Sad/ Arbatskaya/ Borovitskaya (basically the same station).

By other means: Metro! Metro! Metro! Metro!

Packing my Suitcase
MummyTravels

The Nikulin Circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard, Moscow

Russians take their circus very seriously. If you watch the Russia’s Got Talent (which is actually called Fifteen Minutes of Fame, and once had someone called Mikhail Gorbachov as a judge. I could care less but Mama thought this was hysterical, so I assume he must have been a particularly dishy celebrity or something back in Mama’s day) you will very soon notice that by far the largest category of performers are doing some kind of circus act. Mama thinks they are very good too, but then Mama’s idea of amateur circus is people throwing wobbly juggling balls about and, generally, missing. University does sound fun.

Whatever the reason, Moscow has not one but two large permanent circus buildings and we went to the Old Circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard, also known as the Nikulin Circus after one of its most famous clowns/ directors when we were in town this past summer.

A lot of what we saw was the sort of modern take on acrobatics popularised by the Cirque du Soleil. Mama tells me. Trapeze artists who swing upside down low over the audience; people dangling from long swatches of material; people wrapping themselves up in long swatches of material and then unwinding with a flourish; people wrapping themselves up in long swatches of material and unwinding themselves with a flourish while swinging upside down low over the audience; people wrapping other people up and down in long swatches of material while they all swing upside down low over the audience with their legs at an impossible angle. That sort of thing. Also, large men tossing a couple of tiny girls from one metal bar to another and a couple of lads performing tricks at the top of ladders. Very exciting, especially when one of them fell off. If it doesn’t go wrong occasionally, Mama says, you don’t know how difficult it is. Having seen the spill, I suspect that it was all very difficult indeed.

Lads on ladders

Mama also thinks the high wire act, half of which was done without a net or wires was pretty thrilling, especially as the performance area is well-designed to be both spacious and intimate and even from the cheap seats you get a really good view of the slight twitch of concern that crosses the burly walker’s face as he slides across the wire carrying five of his family and somebody wobbles.

I missed that bit. I was asleep. I also missed the set up, done in the interval, which was almost as much fun as the act itself (apparently). A couple of men swarming easily up and down ropes to secure the fastenings and bouncing casually up and down on the wire itself to test its strength. Splendid. Mama says. She was quite pleased to be stuck under a snoring child while the others queued for the toilet.

Not that my falling asleep was a reflection on my enjoyment – I was jet lagged and put off the snooze as long as I could. Mama was initially a bit dubious about taking me to a show. She does not have good memories of taking my Glorious Big Brother to places where he needed to sit down quietly for extended periods of time before he was about three. However, since both Papa and Babushka were also going she reasoned that the adults could work in shifts to walk me up and down the corridor while the rest of our party were enjoying the turns. This turned out to be unnecessary. Despite the fact that the show was very very long, while I was awake I was entirely rapt. As were the others. None of us noticed the time until we were out at the end.

Nikulin Circus performers

Mama even enjoyed the clowns, which is not a sentence she thought she’d be typing ever. They made considerable reference to the traditional clowning elements of mime, pratfalls, squirting the audience with water, much business with unicycles and very big shoes, but much updated and very slick. Mama actually cried with laughter during the mass clapalong section, choreographed by the head clown, and you can’t ask for much more than that.

That said, it’s worth mentioning that a circus in Russia is not the place to go if you have serious scruples about performing animals. Mama generally doesn’t, to be honest. It would be a mistake to think that all circus animals are mistreated simply by virtue of being in a circus, especially in one of the foremost professional performance spaces in Russia.

And generally they stick to the sorts of trainable animals that work for their keep all over the world.

So the bird act was fun, but similar to the ones we’ve seen in high minded conservation projects in the UK, although generally the trainers there are not dressed as pirates; the bareback riders were impressive but slight compared to their extremely sturdy shire-esque mounts; Mama is reasonably sure it’s easier to get dogs to jump over things, even other dogs, than sing; the horses going through dressage moves without actually being in physical contact with their trainer were beautiful, but we watched the same thing in Hyde Park just this week, albeit without the music and the shiny harnesses; and surely elephants carrying people is not that much of an issue even if they are wearing very little apart from sequins. The people, that is. Well, there might have been sequins involved with the elephants too.

Admittedly, an elephant standing on a ball, a genuinely awesome moment, is a bit out of the ordinary, but Mama is prepared to extend the trainers a bit of trust regarding that trick although that might be because secretly, Mama was thrilled to bits with the steampunk Jules Verne theme to the finale, even if the costume changes fro the dancers got a bit dizzying after a while.

An elephant on a ball

However, when Mama walked into the spacious (and very Soviet) reception area (all gleaming marble floors and fancy chandeliers overlaying what would otherwise be a very functional sort of layout) she was quite shocked to see the tiger waiting quietly have its photo taken with the kids. Also, the bear, the elephant, the leopard, the kangaroo, the toucan and the monkeys. Mama has been spending a lot of time in the UK recently, but even so she thinks that she would never be perfectly comfortable with this part. She consoles herself with the thought that the circus’s schedule is not demanding even in the high season, but, of course, your mileage may vary. Mama thinks that if you are going to boycott the circus over the animal issue, then this should be your reason why.

An elephant on display

Depending on your decision, by and large the Nikulin Circus is one of the places to take the under tens in Moscow. And the over tens. You don’t even have to spend a fortune. The performers do project the best bits towards the 3000 rouble punters at the ‘front’. But because it is, after all, a circus and so the performance space is in the round and since all the artists, human and animal, spend quite a bit of the time racing, swinging or flying around the circle, Mama does not plan to be spending any more money next time we go. Look out for ticket selling kiosks all around town for the better deals.

And believe me, if I have anything to say about it, we will be going again.

More Information

The Nikulin Circus’ website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about making your own juggling balls.

Address: 13, Tsvetnoy Boulevard, Moscow, Russia, 127051

Performance times: 7pm Thursday to Sunday, with additional 11am and 2.30 pm performances at weekends.

Price: From 400 roubles (£7) to 3000 roubles (£52.50). Children under six are free if they sit on your lap.

By Metro: Tsvetnoy Boulevard/ Цветной бульвар

By other means: Just get the Metro. It’s fab.