Sometimes even Papa gets lost when trying to find an obscure Moscow courtyard.
Which is disconcerting enough, but what is particularly odd when you do finally locate it, this spot in the capital city of Russia, is being greeted by some bright red British telephone boxes. Just sitting there. All innocent-like.
However, that’s what happens when you go to the Museum of Telephone History in Moscow.
Mama didn’t know the Museum of Telephone History’s Moscow branch was only two years old and a private enterprise before we arrived, which is one reason why she let me stay at home. She wasn’t sure quite how much fun I would have staring at some dusty, out of date technology, dead inside a glass case, which was how she conceived it was going to be before she, Papa and my Wired Up Big Brother went along.
This may have been a mistake.
It turns out that Moscow’s Museum of Telephone History knows that a large number of its audience is suspicious of tales of not being reachable by phone beyond the length of a wire that disappears into a wall, and wonders why someone would bother to call, anyway, when they could just WhatsApp instead.
(Please don’t write in and tell Mama that actually, all the cool kids are now not even using words and are communicating via the medium of interpretive TikTok clips, and even that is due to be old hat in 5…4…3…2…1. She is aware. She is just determined to remain behind the curve).
The Museum of
Telephone History also understands that when it comes to technology,
even moribund technology, what everyone actually wants to do with it
is have a go.
So their tours are very much built around explaining to the next generation the evolution of mechanical communication, and the museum is not afraid to get out the plastic cups attached by string to help it do so. Or teach everyone a bit of Morse code so they can laboriously spell their name in telegraph speak. And even send their mobile phones though a pneumatic tube for the sheer exotic hell of it.
Many of the prettier, more historic or celebrity connected phones are locked away from questing hands, of course. But it’s a pretty eclectic mix of the aesthetically interesting, such as this rather elegant model.
And then there is the curious.
The sinister black phone with only one number, for example.
Observe the British class system at work via the telephone labeled with the rooms of a huge stately home.
And an early payphone.
It also has a lot of fan girl appeal. Phones used by ABBA!
And look! An early example of IKEA mentality with a put-it-together-yourself phone kit!
But you also get to play with the phones on the walls during the tour of the Museum of Telephone History Moscow, while the guide demonstrates how you stand (with your elbow helpfully propped up on the special elbow rest). How you actually place a call. How the bell summons you. How lots of bells summon you. Ooooh, what does this one sound like? Ahem.
They also demonstrate how switchboards worked.
And so on.
Mama particularly enjoyed the exhibit which reproduces not just the feel of different dials but also the noise they made. Mama and Papa, in fact, had a bit of a cross cultural exchange as they tracked down the sounds of their respective yoof at the opposite ends of Europe. Ah, bless.
Anyway. Let’s just
say it was a lot more interactive and a lot more interesting than
Mama was expecting.
You don’t have to go on a tour (although as you can see Mama recommends it, assuming you speak Russian). There is an audio guide provided via Q codes too (how modern, says Mama, who is determined to show her age today). Possibly in English. Possibly even in other languages. The museum seems keen on French. The have souvenirs in French!
The Museum of Telephone History is yet another museum tantalising Mama with the seductive smell of coffee from the cafe area in the corner!
[Actually Mama has just realised we haven’t gotten around to writing about the first one that did that yet. Oooops. Watch this space. *Waggles eyebrows mysteriously.* Although if y’all just followed me on Twitter you would already know.]
The Museum of Telephone History, then, is a small but well appointed museum, and well worth a drop in for Moscow residents, telephone enthusiasts or people who need to explain why we say ‘dial’ a number to their kids. Recommended.
Getting there: The nearest metro stations are Mayakovskaya (green line) and Barrikadnaya/ Krasnopreskinskaya (purple and brown lines). There is a map on the website, which Mama suggests you look at and actually follow. Ahem.
Delicate, handmade glass ornaments have long been a feature of yolkas (the Russian word for New Year/ Christmas trees), and every family may well have their own set of idiosyncratic baubles, although good taste might have overtaken the ones they actually put on display.
So if you wonder around any flea market, you can pick up genuine vintage ones, and last year, there was a display in GUM of the collection that a famous TV presenter here has amassed over the years by doing just that.
favourite of Papa’s own collection is the pickled onion. Shame that
small children and then a kitten who climbed the tree once a day
means that she tends to stick to the hand-painted wooden ones when
the festive season swings round these days.
But when she was offered the chance to tour one of the more famous factories where these tree decorations are actually made, she jumped at the chance. And in fact the name of the New Year/ Christmas tree decorations factory in Klin is ‘Yolochka’, in case you were not sure what its focus really is.
That said, I think the tour at Yolochka is more of an experience than a factory visit.
There are dressed up characters who get you in the mood, tell you all about glass, tell you all about the history of glass making in Klin, and tell you all about the history of glass New Year/ Christmas tree ornament making.
Essentially it seems that what started off as a cottage industry making small colourful glass beads for necklaces, morphed into a cottage industry making long strings of colourful glass beads you could hang on a tree, other iterations of decorations and finally went full on large glass ball blowing, albeit still in a very handcrafted sort of manner.
The Yolochka New Year/ Christmas tree decorations factory in Klin was the first large commercial production facility in Russia, in fact.
At this point on the
tour, Mama was delighted that we got shepherded into a room to watch
actual crafstswomen blow some glass.
Mama was grumpy that she wasn’t allowed to take pictures at this point. She also wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the women in the next room who were painting the resulting New Year/ Christmas baubles.
It was very cool though.
Yes, the word ‘factory’ does imply a certain mechanical automation of the process. But in fact, although there is clearly a production line in the sense that it’s a different person who blows the glass to the one who paints it, they really are not joking when they call it handmade.
In case you are
wondering, among the most difficult to blow are the samovar shaped
baubles, because they require you to be able to get three bubbles out
of one glass form.
At the end of the
tour they have a display of baubles and other tree ornaments painted
by some of the more renowned tree ornament artists.
Luckily for you, she was allowed to get the camera out again when we got onto the displays of New Year/ Christmas tree ornaments through the ages. And of course, since these are mostly Soviet ones, there are some really fabulous space themed ones.
No, I have no idea how Yolochka does the cosmonaut shaped ones, the tree shaped ones and so on and so forth. Gotta have some secrets, haven’t you?
And finally the last stop on the Museum of New Year/ Christmas Tree Decorations tour is getting to meet Ded Moroz, the Russian Santa analogue! Himself! We held hands, sang the New Year Tree song, and paraded around a truly large, thoroughly decorated tree.
Then it was onto the masterclass of tree ornament painting. Obviously. We covered ourselves in glitter. It was great.
And Mama was by this
time thoroughly primed to buy All The Things in the Yolochka factory
shop. Luckily they have a range of stock to suit every budget. Mama
recommends looking out for whatever odd animal theme seems to be
incongruously conspicuous among the decorations. The Russians look to
the other great celebrators of New Year, the Chinese, to add a bit of
spice to the festivities. So whatever animal is coming up for Chinese
New Year next will have a big presence in the New Year decorations on
This year, the year
of the pig gives way to the year of the rat. Mice everywhere you
Now, to get to this Museum of Russian Christmas/ New Year Tree Decorations, you will have to leave Moscow, and it’s a good hour’s journey on a fast train. It’s possibly a bit far to go just for this experience. Luckily, Klin is also the location of the Tchaikovsky House Museum. Frankly you really are missing an opportunity if, as well as visiting that, you do not pop over and experience the tour here as well.
Opening: Every day, 9am – 5.30pm (except 31st December, 1st and 2nd of January).
Admission: Around 500 roubles per person, although it depends how close it is to New Year and whether it is a weekend. Children under six are half price. It’s about 300 roubles extra for a masterclass.
Getting there: You need a train from the Leningradsky train station, found atop the Komsomolskaya metro station on the red and brown lines. If you get a fast, lastochka train you will be in Klin in an hour. Buy return tickets in Moscow if you have children, as concession tickets cannot be bought in Klin and you’ll have to pay full price for your kids to return to the capital. The trains run around every one to two hours, more during peak times. If you get a slow train it will take at least 30 minutes longer. One way tickets for adults will be around 300 roubles. You can easily buy them at the Leningradsky station itself, but don’t lose the rather flimsy paper – it’s what opens he gates to and from the platform, and it will be checked on the train itself.
You can drive (or get a taxi). Head for St Petersburg.
Within the first ten minutes of the tour of the Sergei Yesenin Museum we were standing in a circle round a tree reciting a poem.
Yesenin is what the
Internet describes as ‘one of the greatest Russian poets of the
20th century’ and Mama describes as ‘who?’
So before we went to
his museum she looked him up.
And given what she found out she was really looking forward to discovering how his life would be conveyed to a mixed group of 5 to 12-year-olds.
The Internet calls
Yesenin a lyric poet. This means that he was extremely enthusiastic
about just how damn beautiful existence, the world, and Russian
nature was. Which doesn’t necessarily mean happy, of course.
Painfully beautiful is also a thing.
Here is the poem we all learn off by heart the minute we set foot in school in Russia, the one we kicked off with at the beginning of the tour, the one that Mama really should have a vague memory of, having launched children into the Russian education system twice now. It’s about a tree:
The white birch tree/ Beneath my window/ Has covered herself with snow,/ Like silver.
The fluffy branches/ Trimmed with snow/ Have grown themselves bristles,/ A white fringe.
And the birch stands/ In sleepy silence./ And the snowflakes burn,/ Golden fire.
Dawn, lazily,/ Walking around,/ Sprinkles the branches/ With new silver.
It rhymes in Russian. Mama also thinks there is a more poetic way to
say both ‘fluffy branches’ and ‘bristles’ but cannot think of
it off the top of her head. Have at it if you want to improve on her
Mama stood out on the tour of the Yesenin Museum, as aside from the tree-worshipping opening, the guides had the habit of every now and again throwing out a the first few lines of a stanza, and everybody in the room reflexively finished them off. Except Mama. Hey ho.
Mama suspects that Sergei Yesenin wrote his poetry the way he lived his life. Because Yesenin seems to have flung himself into it with blind passion and a total disregard for what people might think, any sense of self preservation, or what he probably should have been doing.
He ended up with a childhood spent in a village being used as a gun dog by his uncles and flung into lakes to teach him how to swim; a book of poetry completed before he left school (unpublished); some time as an editor in Moscow; a military career (short-lived); sudden and enduring FAME very shortly after he started publishing poetry (in a children’s magazine); a book of religious poetry; the habit of dressing theatrically as a peasant in St Petersburg’s literary salons; arrests for refusing to publish pro-monarchist verses, for participating in revolutionary activities and later for continually pissing of the Soviet authorities with criticism that this was not at all what he had meant (sometimes in verse); eight wives/ girlfriends (depending on how you count it), who included the American dancer Isadora Duncan, with whom he did not share a common language, a famous actress and Lev Tolstoy’s granddaughter, as well as a number of same-sex flings and relationships; four kids; his own publishing house and literary movement, heavy on metaphor, Imaginism; a drinking problem complete with drunken rampages in private and public and a large number of low drinking dives where everybody knew his name; a drug habit; at least one nervous breakdown; and an affinity for the stray or abused animals he took as pets.
All before he was
Which was when he
He killed himself.
There are those who say that he was killed by the Soviet security forces.
But there is also a farewell poem. Written in his own blood. Because he had run out of ink. Apparently. Which he sent to his final lover a few days before his death.
Papa describes Sergei Yesenin as a rock star.
Some feat, given that he died in 1925, but I daresay you can see what he means. And why Mama’s eyebrows were well in her hairline contemplating our visit. Not helped when a friend said that when she was at school, the tidbit of retained information a classmate actually wrote in an essay about the poet was ‘Yesenin usually felt the urge to drink with hobos or illuminate [sic] some prostitutes’.
Mama thinks the
child may have been exposed to some of Yesenin’s later
Here is one from that era. Mama has been wondering around after Papa all day going, so when he says this, does he mean that or this other thing? Why doesn’t Google translate recognise this word at all? And then they argued about whether some image would be better translated as ‘I’m depressed’, or whether they should leave it alone, even if it is a bit awkward in an English version.
This poem also rhymes in Russian.
That is beyond Mama’s poetic capacity entirely so you will just have to imagine that part.
Yes. It’s decided. There’s no going back./ I’ve left my roots behind./ The rustling poplar leaves/ Will sound without me.
Without me the small house is falling into ruin,/The old dog is long dead./ On Moscow’s winding streets/ I’ll die, I know, God promised me.
I love this old town/ Be it ever so run down and ever so decrepit./ Drowsy golden Asia/ is slumbering on cupolas.
But when the moonlight is shining,/ When it shines – the devil knows how!/ I go, head down,/ Down the alley to a local bar.
The noise and chatter of the den is unsettling,/ But all night long, until dawn,/I read poems to prostitutes/ And knock back shots with gangsters.
My heart is beating faster and faster/ And I find myself suddenly saying,/ “I’m just like you, lost,/ There’s no going back.
Without me the small house is falling into ruin,/ The old dog is long dead./ On Moscow’s winding streets/I’ll die, I know, God promised me.”
In fact, so rock star is Yesenin, that actual rock stars have borrowed his lyrics for songs. Here is the one Mama has been labouring over performed by Zemfira, who was very big in the 90s in an angsty riot grrrrl kind of way. Mama, in fact, knew the song, but did not know it was co-authored by Yesenin.
‘He led a very full life’ was how all this was covered on the tour of the Yesenin Museum. A very full life. So full, they said, that although he died young, Yesenin crammed what everyone else might be reasonably expected to manage in three years into one. Which instantly made everyone feel OK about them opening the tour with the early death (by unspecified means).
The Yesenin Museum turned out to one small room and a corridor in a much bigger wooden building. Yesenin was only actually here at the very beginning of his time in the metropolis – it’s actually the room his father rented while he worked as a bookkeeper in a butchers. He tried to get Yesenin to join him in this, but Yesenin didn’t fancy it much. This room doesn’t actually take much time to tour, especially of you are providing a, ahem, heavily edited version of Yesenin’s life.
We ended up focusing mostly on Sergei Yesenin’s love for nature, for his motherland, for village life, and for animals.
This meant that we disappeared off to a different room and participated in all sorts of dressing up opportunities, animal themed charades, folk dancing, rustic games involving things like winding and unwinding wool and such like, and a memorable moment where my Star Struck Big Bro thought that he was actually going to get to remove a live frog from a pitcher of milk (don’t ask). His disgust when it turned out to be a toy was a sight to behold, but luckily the next activity was a competition of guessing the name of birds from their song, which he won. Comfortably.
Inevitably, my Star Struck Big Bro’s two favourite stories about Yesenin post-tour are about animals.
Firstly there is the time he took his bread ration and fed it to the sparrows, which outraged some people watching, who felt that if he didn’t want it himself, there were plenty of hungry people about who did. Yesenin was unrepentant, and declared that birds had just as much right to eat as humans.
The second story is about a dog, which Yesenin acquired from a man who declared that its unusually shaped ears meant it was an unusual breed of dog. When he got it home, Yesenin discovered that it was an ordinary mutt, whose ears had been stitched up. Yesenin unstitched them, and kept the dog anyway.
It may not surprise you, then, that the Yesenin Museum is committed to supporting the work of animal shelters in Moscow.
Anyway. The Yesenin Museum, or rather the tour of the Yesenin Museum, works very hard to keep you interested in the poet, without actually boring you with all the details of his humdrum existence. They seem to be English enabled as well. If you have got a taste for blistering pastoral metaphor, and fancy contributing to the welfare of Moscow’s cats and dog population to boot, this is one for your list.
Address: 24 Strochenovsky Pereulok, Building 2, Moscow, 115054
Admission: Adults, 300 roubles and kids, 150 roubles. There is an audio guide for 350 roubles, but Mama really recommends investing in the face to face tour, assuming it is much the same in English as ours was in Russian. You also have to pay 150 roubles if you want to take photos.
Opening: Wednesday through Sunday 10am – 6pm, although it opens at 1pm – 9pm on Thursdays. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Getting there: It’s between either the Brown/ Grey line stations of Dobryninskaya/ Serpukhovskaya and the Brown/ Green line station, Paveletskaya, a short walk away from either.
One of the interesting aspects of trying to impart nuggets of wisdom to others is that you cannot entirely control what they take on board. Unless you repeat your message over and over in different ways, preferably in 30 second slots, with excellent visuals. For six months.
So there Mama and a group of other parents were, standing in the garden of the Tchaikovsky House Museum in Klin, idly wondering what, if anything, their children would remember after a tour of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s house.
And so they decided
to ask who the children thought Tchaikovsky was.
A poet. Said one child with incautious briskness. Nonono, wait, he added, when all the adults responded with that deadpan stare that Russians are particularly good at and his friend elbowed him. A… musician?
This is not a mistake Mama’s children would have made. Mainly because Mama and Papa had demonstrated the Dance of the Swans in the kitchen while humming the tune loudly and (in the case of Papa) off key only a few days before. That sort of thing sticks in the mind.
Still, Mama was now
interested in what we had retained.
Tchaikovsky died. In
St Petersburg. The doctors were unable to help.
Yes, said Big
Brother enthusiastically. He never made it back to this house.
Mama blinked. She hadn’t previously suspected her children of developing goth sensibilities. But Mama was also on the Tchaikovsky House Museum tour, and recalled that death was indeed how it had opened. And openers do tend to be memorable.
Of course, and the almighty uproar the death caused at the time does serve to underline quite how famous Tchaikovsky was even in his own lifetime. It’s not everyone whose family has to issue what amounts to a press release exonerating his doctors from negligence or incompetence. It’s also not everyone whose death spawns rumours of suicide years later (drinking a slow acting poison that mimics the symptoms of cholera so as to protect a member of the royal family from scandal. As you do).
Still. Mama does perhaps think that the morning tea-drinking habit in the pleasant annex off the main room might have been a nicer way to kick off. Especially on a child-focused tour.
Now at this point
Mama is imagining people looking shifty and wondering if they know
enough about Tchaikovsky to satisfy her, so here are some of the
reasons why you may have heard of him.
Tchaikovsky was one of the first internationally celebrated Russian composers, as well as hugely well regarded at home. Mama has always considered him a very Western influenced composer, and indeed he was classically trained in St Petersburg’s newly opened conservatory, and later taught in the also newly opened Moscow one, which still bears his name. But it seems that everyone else feels that while he did not go as full on down the path of Slavic folk music influenced harmonies as people like Mussorgsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, he did nevertheless manage to annoy the crap out of his old teacher, Rubinstein, by sticking unmistakable sounds of his motherland into his tunez. With added harp. Which wasn’t for the likes of recently graduated students, apparently.
And in fact Mama is forced to admit that if you listen to the very opening of the 1812 Overture, to take just one example, you can hear exactly what they mean, which is no mistake as Tchaikovsky wrote it to be as over the top nationalist as possible. Which is probably why he scored actual cannons in it.
This habit of innovation likely contributed to the fact that almost every one of his new works seems to have opened to mixed reviews, despite generally going on to become phenomenally popular later. Problematic, because Tchaikovsky felt things. He felt all the things. Well, you can probably tell that if you listen to his music.
Luckily, he also seems to have had enough tenacious self-belief to push on regardless. This is important because he found the process of creating new masterpieces often tortuous and it exhausted him.
As a result of his widespread fame he travelled. A lot. In fact, even the location of the Tchaikovsky House Museum is testament to that as it is on the main highway between Moscow and St Petersburg on the outskirts of Klin. Although he only occupied this particular house for the lest year or so of his life, he’d been renting houses in the area for some time previously, because it was both convenient for travel, but also discouraged visitors. This house was the best though, being a little bit harder to get to, so cutting down on the number of times he was forced to stop writing music and attend to his groupies.
And indeed, the Moscow-St Petersburg main road still roars past right outside the Tchaikovsky House Museum, and the train you can get is one of the super-fast lastochka ones, being on the main line between Russia’s two biggest cities. But it is a bit of a slog from the station if you decide to walk, and Mama would not say the route was particularly scenic, apart from the bit when you go across the river Sestra. There are buses, however.
You probably also know, because tediously this is still a controversial thing, that Tchaikovsky was gay. Quite how Tchaikovsky felt about it is also the sort of thing people argue about. Opinions range from it tortured him and possibly contributed to his death, to actually he was content, thanks, sod off.
He did attempt to get married at one point. It did not go well. Aside, of course, from the fact that the person he married was a woman, Mama thinks that Tchaikovsky does not sound like a very monogamous sort of person. At all. A dramatic person, yes. When he realised it was not going to work, he stood in the rain, hoping he would get pneumonia and die.
You can see how the
suicide rumours got started to be honest.
As well as composing and falling in and out of love, letter writing was also something Tchaikovsky did prolifically and well.
The Tchaikovsky House Museum holds 1200 letters between him and his wealthy patroness, Nadezhda Von Meck. These are lengthy, philosophical, wide-ranging, introspective and only stopped when Von Meck cut off his whopping great 6 000 roubles a year allowance somewhat abruptly.
To be fair to her, at this point Tchaikovsky was really very famous, and he even had another pension incoming from the Tsar, Alexander III. Von Meck’s finances, on the other hand, were increasingly in trouble, and her family were increasingly unhappy about her artistic subsidy eating into their precarious situation. This did not stop Tchaikovsky moaning bitterly about the loss of income, however.
Mama feels that Nadezhda Von Meck is worth a digression, not that much was made of her on the tour.
Married to a minor engineer in the civil service, she spotted that railways were the future and argued her husband into quitting his job and getting involved . Hundreds of miles of track later, the family was extremely well off, and then Von Meck’s husband died, at which point, she took over the whole enterprise – it was handing over the reins to her sons that seems to have caused problems in the cash flow – and looked about her for new causes to get off the ground, Tchaikovsky being the lucky recipient of her energy. Her stipend allowed Tchaikovsky to leave his job at the Moscow Conservatory and devote himself to composing full time.
They never met.
At Von Meck’s
insistence. Well, actually this is not true. They saw each other
briefly from a distance by accident a couple of times.
Mama feels that Von
Meck’s idea here was absolutely right, as finding out about people
you admire is often disappointing, at least when you don’t have the
opportunity to mitigate their more irritating tendencies with the
warmth of friendship. She also admires the fact that Nadezhda Von
Meck sounds like a woman of absolute commitment to eccentricity and
strong mindedness. She was, broadly speaking, against marriage for
example. She was also an excellent judge of musical artistry – the
person she hired to tutor her children was a young Claude Debussy.
If there were a
house museum about her, we would totes be on our way there now. Even
though we might have to travel into Europe as she had estates there
as well as in Russia, which Tchaikovsky often stayed at.
On a less well documented note, Mama learnt that Tchaikovsky wore slippers. Here they are in Tchaikovsky’s bedroom, which leads directly off the main living area.
See that table under the window? That’s where Tchaikovsky did all his composing although given the short time he was in the house all he actually wrote here was the Pathetique Symphony, as well as revising a few bits and bobs. It was this piece of music that did for him – he went to St Petersburg for its opening performance and that’s where he incautiously drank unboiled water in a restaurant afterwards.
It doesn’t help allay the suicide theory that some musicologists point to its early echoing of the Russian Orthodox requiem liturgy. That said, the name in Russian is better translated as passionate rather than sad. And there are a number of sections which are much more aux anges than melancholic. It seems, in short, that it might after all be fitting epitaph for a highly emotionally charged individual, whether it was intended as one or not.
After Tchaikovsky’s probably not all that mysterious passing actually his brother, Modest, was the one who started the Tchaikovsky House Museum. He continued to live there himself, along with Tchaikovsky’s nephew, ‘Bob’ (no, I don’t know why he’s called ‘Bob’ either. It’s not his real name. A whim of Tchaikovsky’s apparently).
Modest and Bob did add an extra wing, though, so they could keep living there without disturbing Tchaikovsky’s stuff. Lots of wood panelling. Splendid.
And thus it remained until the revolution when it was occupied, briefly, by an anarchist and his family, before being turned back into a museum again. Did I mention that Tchaikovsky is really very very famous and beloved in Russia? This is much more important than overthrowing the elite and occupying their stuff.
Such was his status that despite the quite desperate struggle the Russians were having in World War Two, they took care that Tchaikovsky’s effects were evacuated in anticipation of occupation by the invading Nazis. Sensible move in the event, as indeed the building was taken over by the German army, who parked vehicles on the ground floor.
Now it is fully restored as a memorial to Tchaikovsky’s life, with added concert hall and art gallery complex off to one side, only troubled every now and again by winners of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, now gearing up for its XVII’s round, coming and playing on his personal piano, and planting a tree in the garden.
Brief pause on the tour at this point while we all listen to some of Tchaikovsky’s piano music while standing in the really very pleasant living room where the piano actually is. This would be the only place you would hear him play. He wasn’t a great one for performances in public, although he would entertain friends.
To be honest, Mama could have done with a lot more focus on the music during her visit to the Tchaikovsky House Museum. As a former bass player, Mama’s view of Tchaikovsky is somewhat limited, and admirably summed up by this video and its concern for accurately counting the rests, obsessing over whether it should be der duuum or der duum, and a magnificent attempt to pretend the twiddly bits don’t exist.
I dunno, perhaps we Russians are all supposed to have Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Hits on loop in our heads or something, but both Mama and Papa would have quite liked it piped over a loudspeaker as they wandered round the house and grounds. As it was, in addition to the piano recording, we got herded into a room and forced to watch the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, which was nice, but still a little bit thin compared to the richness of the available oeuvre. Mama understands that possibly the audio guide tour, as opposed to the face to face tour, is a little more music focused, so she recommends giving that a try.
Anyway. Tchaikovsky’s House Museum in Klin. He’s one of the greats, is Tchaikovsky. His house is very pleasant indeed. It’s easy to get to from Moscow. There is a cafe on site. And there’s a cat.
Opening: 10 am – 6pm Friday to Tuesday (closed Wednesday and Thursday, and the last Monday of every month).
Admission: 550 roubles for adults who cannot pretend to be Russian, 300 roubles for adults who can pretend to be Russian (or who are, y’know, Russian), 190 roubles for children. You will need to buy a photography permit for another 200 roubles to be able to take pictures in the house.
Getting there: You need a train from the Leningradsky train station, found atop the Komsomolskaya metro station on the red and brown lines. If you get a fast, lastochka train you will be in Klin in an hour. Buy return tickets in Moscow if you have children, as concession tickets cannot be bought in Klin and you’ll have to pay full price for your kids to return to the capital. The trains run around every one to two hours, more during peak times. If you get a slow train it will take at least 30 minutes longer. One way tickets for adults will be around 300 roubles. You can easily buy them at the Leningradsky station itself, but don’t lose the rather flimsy paper – it’s what opens he gates to and from the platform, and it will be checked on the train itself.
You can drive (or get a taxi). Head for St Petersburg. The Tchaikovsky House Museum will be somewhere on your left, between Moscow and St Petersburg.
It won’t come as
any surprise to people who are familiar with certain areas of London,
but some Russians have a lot of money.
Quite how much money is actually quite hard to comprehend for mere mortals such as Mama, but let’s just say that the first time Papa heard Alan Sugar’s boast about having made 800 million pounds from scratch in the opening credits to the Apprentice he laughed and laughed and laughed at the idea that this was in any way impressive.
Vast wealth beyond even the most avaricious dreams concentrated in the hands of a very few is what you get when you believe a bit too naively in the capitalist dream, which is what Russia did in the 90s. Not controlling the rampant asset stripping of the former Soviet Union was, in Mama’s opinion, a mistake, and not one made entirely though cynicism or lacking the tools to do so. Not… entirely.
Of course, not all the oligarchs made their trillions from the fire sale of the oil, gas, telecommunication networks, metals, or gemstone industries. Some people managed to make a fortune from kitty litter and concrete, and one of them is Mkrtich Okroyan, who has put his resulting 100 million dollar collection of Art Deco doodads on display in his own private museum in Moscow. As you do.
And what Mama decided after touring the Moscow Art Deco Museum’s one largish room is that it is a pretty good entry into a New Russian pissing contest. Because it is, in fact, only marginally more tasteful than building a house with seventeen fairytale turrets and filling it with repo Louis XIV furniture before covering everything with gold gilt. Says Mama, who thinks you can only really get away with that if you are actually a 17th Century French king with a giant 1000 room palace to fill, and multiple dancing fountains or 200 pairs of diamond studded heels to offset.
Is Mama relentlessly middle class or what?
That said, many individual pieces are very nice indeed.
And the Moscow Art Deco Museum collection includes pieces by some of the big names (Mama gathers, vaguely) in Art Deco sculpting.
Although what Mama most gained from the experience in the end was an overpowering urge to cavort, contortedly, arms outflung.
She contemplated having us pose in front of the figures and try to copy them in a nod to educational something or other, but a) she probably can’t afford the hospital bills and b) we were supremely uninterested in helping her walk around and photograph everything because there was an Art Deco colouring area and other children there to talk to. And if we got bored of that, the Art Deco style chairs round the Art Deco inspired coffee table we were exercising our creativity on spun round! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Actual Art Deco objects d’art cannot at all compete with that.
You have to buy a photography pass if you want to emulate Mama, by the way, a practice which is dying out in Moscow generally. And what with that and the entrance price, Mama concludes that kitty litter and concrete is not, perhaps, as lucrative as you might suspect. Clearly patronising the arts is an expensive hobby.
Anyway. A visit to the Moscow Art Deco Museum is not going to take up a vast amount of time. So it is nice to know that it is set on the banks of the Moscow River, and that if you shlepp across the bridge nearby, you will be bang in the middle of the Sparrow Hills section of the southern embankment.
And before that you can go and have a look at the rather fabulous building that houses the Russian Academy of Sciences. Mama says it is the architectural equivalent of standing on to of a hill in wet copper armour during a thunderstorm shouting ‘all gods are bastards’ because she thinks its form very much matches its function, and because she has always thought that was one of Terry Pratchett’s best lines.
She is quite pleased
that it is a building very visible from a long way away in the
current day and age. Just to keep people grounded
(hahahahahahahahaha. HAHAHAHAHA. Oh, deary me).
There are cafes dotted around the Moscow Art Deco Museum too, partly because the museum seems to be in some kind of re-working of former factories into trendy office space. Although because it was a weekend, they were mostly closed, and so we had our lunch in a cafeteria attached to a car repair outfit round the corner.
If you are looking
for a real post Soviet 90s-esque experience, this should be your stop
In fact, Moscow is still full of these stalovayas, the Russian equivalent of the greasy spoon kaff, anywhere where people actually work. They serve food such as hearty soups, plump pork or chicken burgers, buckwheat kasha, a number of (admittedly mostly mayonnaise inspired) salads and cheesecake style puddings out of curds and raisins, washed down with compot or mors, mild tasting drinks made by boiling fruit in water (more or less). Which a distinct step up from MacDonald’s when you are trying to insert a certain amount of food into children with a reasonable level of nutrition. And at a fraction of the price of named chains which do more or less the same but in slightly more up-scale surroundings. Admittedly they have a wider range of tea and coffee options.
No you cannot always
just take sandwiches. It’s damn chilly outside in winter. Mama has
experimented, but shovelling food into your kids on the Metro is
frowned on. Although now it is actually summer, a picnic is something
From there you can have a pleasantly wooded walk down to Gorky Park. But that is a story for another day.
Address: Luzhnetskaya Quay 2/4, building 4, Moscow, 119270
Opening: Tuesday to Sunday (closed Monday), 11am to 9pm
Admission: 200 roubles for adults, 100 roubles for children, plus some more money if you want to take photos.
Getting there: The nearest metro station is Vorobyovy Gory (red line), which is actually on a bridge over the Moscow river. You need to get to the northern embankment and turn right, away from the big stadium that was one of the World Cup football venues. It’s about a ten minute walk.
It was a decidedly worrying thirty minutes, until she and Papa were able to follow the sounds of dacha land back to civilization, popping out of the trees some considerable distance to where they went in to pick a few mushrooms.
This experience was
rendered not less freaky by the story their neighbour then told of
getting turned around on a similar mission and being stuck in the
trees for three days.
Which just goes to
show you that Muscovites may know how to fix the central heating
system with a bent paperclip and a hammer, but are not at all
This is a problem because the Russian forest is a wilderness. And huge. And largely left to its own devices.
So Mama was very surprised that the Russian Forest Museum in Moscow is one of the Russian captial’s best kept secrets, which she only stumbled upon by accident.
It’s a bonus that it turned out to be something of a find, and is now one of our favourite museums in Moscow.
Some of this is because of fabulous detailing of the interior, like this traditional wooden window carving.
Undoubtedly more of it is because of the room full off stuffed animals, mimicking a forest glade. Complete with the pleasant sounds of soft bird calls and running water.
The bird calls are
recorded, but the water music is because of the actual stream flowing
through the diorama. It is CHARMING. We were all CHARMED.
Plus, they have an excellent natural stone floor.
It’s called the Temple of the Forest. Quite right too.
The rest of the Russian Forest Museum is a bit less quirky but no less interesting to poke around, managing to impart all sorts of facts about trees and the other plants and wildlife that you can find among them.
Fruits of the forest.
Also, Baba Yaga.
The docents in charge of the Russian Forest Museum have also been particularly welcoming and very happy to cater to my and my Sylvan Big Brother’s enthusiasm when ever we pitch up.
They also told us that the Yolka, the children’s show at New Year, is particularly fabulous.
Even the cave where the coats are kept is cool. Noticing the owl is a sign of being a child at heart, the cloakroom attendant explained, because all the kids do, but none of the adults. By and large.
So quite why it is not heaving with interested visitors is a complete mystery to Mama. Although her accompanying Russian friend did point out that if, in fact, Russians want to commune with the silver birches, the ceder trees and the many varieties of fir and wotnot, all they have to do is walk about 200 yards outside of any given town. Even right next to Moscow is a nature reserve which is home to elk and wild boars. Elk! and wild boars!
So, vast expanses of (nature filled) trees, continually on your doorstep. Not as thoroughly exotic as they are to Mama.
It may have been our visit to the Russian Forest Museum which gave Mama the chutzpah to go back into the woods some fifteen years after her first disastrous visit.
Or it may have been the fact that every other tree on the trail to the local swimming hole was marked. Mama’s fellow urbanites may be Russian, but have clearly learned to take no chances.
Since the walk takes about 40 minutes and one tree does start to look much the same as another after a while, at some point the locals have gotten creative, and added signage. There’s only so much excitement to be had from the soft sunlight streaming though the leafy canopy onto the floor of moss and blueberries, the crack of a tree falling over 50 metres away, the smell of damp earth and greenery, and wondering if you will tread on a snake while realising it is more likely to be a frog.
This one says ‘mosquitoes’ and is accurate.
Others hint at the delights of the swimming area ahead.
There’s a waterproof visitors book.
And other witty remarks such as ‘sun this way’.
Or, for the way back, ‘your dinner’s getting cold’.
It was fun. But so is the Russian Forest Museum in Moscow. Well worth adding to a walk around the attractively buildinged area immediately south of the Moscow River down from the Kremlin. Which is clearly the subject of a post for another day.
Address: Building 4, 5th Monetchikovsky Pereulok, Moscow, 115054
Opening: In summer, Monday – Friday (closed weekends) 10am to 6pm. At other times, the museum is closed Monday and Tuesdays, but open on weekends.
Admission: 150 roubles for adults, 100 roubles for children over seven (under sevens are free).
Getting there: It’s close to Paveletskaya Metro station, on the green and brown lines. You can also walk down from Teatralnaya/ Novokuznetskaya (green, yellow and orange lines) which will take you past a lot of interesting buildings in this older district.
One of the things everyone recommends when you say you are about to visit Kolomna in Russia is a look around the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum. Which does not initially seem like and incentive to get on a train and travel for two hours out of Moscow.
But then you find out that pastila is a type of sweet.
Pastila is, in fact, the same sort of sweet as a (Rowntrees) fruit pastille. Name a bit of a give away there. Except pastila is a lot softer, a bit more gourmet, with more variation in the different types. And originally at least, a lot less mass produced.
In French, they call it Pate de Fruit. Immediately makes it sound even more enticing, non?
Essentially, for those who have never considered how their fruit pastilles are made, to get pastila you concoct a fruit puree and then allow it to turn into something jellylike.
Apples are involved, partly because Kolomna seems to have been particularly abundant in apple orchards, and partly because they are a good source of the setting agent pectin. But other berries and soft fruits can be used too. Mama particularly likes the blackcurrant flavoured ones.
But then the makers of Kolomna pastila started to get fancy. And not just because pastila was often made with honey in Kolomna. Honey was cheap. Sugar was not. That’s it. Honeyed pastila is tasty though.
No, classic Kolomna pastila was different from the French and English versions because the addition of eggwhites to the puree and a long drying process in the traditional Russian clay oven added a certain marshmallowy quality to the sweet. Which became beloved of the Imperial court on down.
Shame the original historical recipe got lost somewhere between the revolution upending everything, including, for some reason, the apple orchards. And the attempt to produce pastila as an fully industrial process did not go as well as hoped either. Still, they seem to have got it mostly worked out again now.
This doesn’t quite explain the popularity of the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum, however.
Even though everyone is careful to tell you they will serve you tea and conduct a tasting session, Mama was bemused by the extreme enthusiasm she encountered from tourists and locals alike.
I mean, every cafe in Kolmna serves tea and pastila, and the museum itself has a particularly fabulous one next door to the main building. What could possibly be so gripping about a few glass cases and some explanatory placards?
No, it is an interactive, immersive experience in which the history of pastila making in Kolomna, the cooking process, and all the different types of pastila are demonstrated by costumed actors playing out various roles of 19th century cottage industry workers.
And also the factory owner and his wife.
Even the embedded advertisement for all the related products sold by the Pastila Factory Museum shop (fruit syrup, herbal tea, jam, and preserved fruit, in case you are wondering) is exuberantly done. And Baba Yaga herself has a cameo appearance.
You get to make your
own pastila, from washing and coring the apples, through stirring the
puree, to sticking the pastille on a hook to allow it to be dipped in
syrup and hardened.
You also get to visit the cellar full of apples. The smell alone was worth the price of admission.
Mama and Papa seriously considered locking my Appleloving Big Brother in there and coming back in a few hours to see who had won. Particularly as he was having a bit of a sulk at the beginning of the tour over a clash between Mama’s desire to photograph all the very attractive Kolomna buildings, churches and houses, and his desire to go and slide around in the record amounts of snow that had fallen that weekend.
He had thoroughly cheered up by the end though.
We did both also score an apple to munch as we went round the rest of the tour of the Kolomna Pastila Museum though and I must say that every museum tour should consider this method of keeping their young visitors happy, as well as ending with a sweet tasting.
If you are dithering about which Kolomna pastila museum to choose (there are two), or whether to go to a pastila museum at all, we heartily recommend this one. One word of warning – the tours are all run in Russian. But you can find yourself a guide to translate without too much difficulty, if you are not able to nudge your children sharply at significant moments and demand key words. Like Mama. Ow.
If you cannot make it out of Moscow to Kolomna yourself, then the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum has a shop actually in Moscow, near Smolenskaya, and is available to order goodies from online.
When we first visited the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, devoted to the Soviet and Russian space programme, Mama thought that space, its vastness, its inhospitable nature and the problems of how to stay there successfully went a bit over my and my Cosmic Big Brother’s head.
At that point we were only visiting Moscow, we were both six and under, and I was quite concerned about some of my toys. They were not where I was. I kept asking Mama if they were in my far far away home. She said yes. I was reassured for another ten minutes, while Mama was delighted. Not, I hasten to explain, because I was undergoing angst. But because she thought I had understood something important about the abstract concept of place.
What I say is that you would have had to be very dim indeed, or y’know, two or something not to grasp the distances involved when you have got on a train for ages, a plane for ages and ages and ages, a train for ages, an underground train for ages, and then still had short bus ride to go.
But space, I’m told, is even further away. And I did spend quite some time thinking that Moscow was a magical fairyland up in the clouds, because I tended to be asleep for the down bit of the journey. You can see Mama’s concern. Particularly as there are also actual adult people living today who think that the world is flat.
On top of this, modern life being in many ways indistinguishable from magic, the sheer effort involved in chucking a big tin tube into outer space past the gravity sucking forces and cosy atmosphere bubble is easy to dismiss. Even when it comes back more or less intact. I mean, it’s alright, but it’s no carrying a talking super computer connected to the collected wisdom of humanity (plus cat pictures and Bejeweled Gem Swap Invasion 7) around in your pocket, is it? Surely there’s an app for that?
However, the good news is that you cannot spend three years living in Russia without gaining a bit (ok, a lot) more appreciation of the whole undertaking. Or the idea that being first to *cough* almost *cough* everything to do with the cosmos is a thing to aspire to and be proud of.
So Mama now has to lean somewhat less hard on her not considerable knowledge of physics and engineering to engage us on our visit to the Space Museum, and can rely somewhat more on that of my Cosmic Big Brother. Who has been on school visits. And has internalized a number of factoids he finds interesting about the exhibits. Which he is more than happy to share.
Naturally, as it involves animals, chief among those is the life story of the space dogs, Belka and Strelka, the first two living beings to make it to space and come back alive (give or take a few mice and fruit flies). Did you know that after they landed they were never fed conventional dog food again, but only the very choicest of meaty morsels? You do now. And when they died, they were stuffed and put on display in the Moscow Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in the opening gallery devoted to some of the famous first flights. Now that’s fame.
Luckily for her, Valentina Tereshkovais still alive and unavailable. Mama wonders how close Yuri Gagarin was to sharing the same fate. But Sputnik is there, and that’s pretty cool, as are the first satellites to orbit various heavenly bodies, significant space suits and a film loop of footage surrounding the most significant space race milestones. Clips of take offs, engineers fiddling with equipment, the great dog/human cosmonauts themselves waving, and shots of ordinary people’s reactions to the news of what had happened.
The great engineering brains behind the endeavour are not forgotten either, but they too are given a human touch. Not just their medals or items from their professional lives are on display, but photos of them relaxing at the datcha alongside their personal chess board and so on too.
Also in this section are some of the spaceorific souvenirs created to commemorate all of this worthy activity. Which, this being the Soviet Union, were mostly in the form of lovingly hand crafted porcelain items rather than mass-produced plastic tat. This is Mama’s personal favourite, although she would like to point you in the direction of the very (very very) obviously female cosmonauts in the other display case.
The engagement of children and adults alike is also enhanced by the fact that the Cosmonautics Museum is visually stunning too. The sputniks, rockets, landing crafts, satellites and probes which litter the place are objects d’art in their own right. The first room you enter has lighting designed to simulate a particularly impressive starry starry night, which makes all the shiny metal things twinkle and the marble floor gleam. The main exhibition hall has a space mural painted over the ceiling. Something which I was particularly delighted to point out to Mama.
And it is surrounded by aluminum walkways, almost giving Mama the impression that she would at any moment be ushered into a space craft and countdown will commence.
If you are in any way photography minded, this means you will want to invest in the special pass. You can take pictures with your phone for free, but for an actual camera you need to pay extra. Mama made the mistake of not realising the first time she visited how very photogenic the Moscow Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics would be. By the time she noticed, she was too far in to go back. Mama’s photography skills are not improved by having to hide behind Papa to snap shots very quickly, so this time we went she ponied up the 230 roubles immediately we arrived.
Totally. Worth. It.
Of course, you can see inside the rockets too, and actually tour a mock-up of the original space station, MIR. Where we were delighted by the computer stuck to the ceiling, the space toilet, and the fish tank.
And then you can roam around in the section about how cosmonauts live, when they are preparing for space, when they are in space, and when they land. Check out the space fridge!
And the very natty training uniforms.
And lots of pictures of smiley people clearly having a whale of a time while whizzing round and round the Earth, pondering the insignificance of humanity’s place in the universe.
And this, which my Cosmic Big Brother somehow still managed to make all about animals. It’s the emergency kit for cosmonauts who have landed to help them survive until help arrives. Note the gun? That’s for shooting wolves, apparently. Aaaaaaaaaaah, Russia.
Just underneath MIR, you can see a re-entry capsule that actually was in space, which you can tell because of its impressively incinerated look. Look out for this mottling elsewhere to reassure you they have not just emptied out the space programme’s cupboards of all the spare, unused space-going, possibly a bit substandard machinery.
The last area is when international co-operation in this great undertaking is celebrated, specially in detailing the work of the International Space Station. We were terribly excited to see the UK flag up there. Hurrah for all two of our astronauts!
It is sobering, though, to note by looking at the wall of Soviet/ Russian cosmonauts, just how few people of any nationality have been up on the cosmos in the last 70-odd years.
If all of this attention to the pinnacle of human ingenuity has made you hungry, there is now a cafe open on the premises, in which you can buy some very reasonable pizzas, and souvenir space food.
Mama was rather upset not to be able to get dehydrated space ice cream and recreate the thrill of when Grandad brought her some on his business trip to the US space centres when she was a child. However, with careful consideration, we got some chicken-and-potato-in-a-tube to take home. After much delighted faffing about with the nifty self-heating pouch, it was a bit of a let down to discover that what was inside was perfectly palatable. But then none of us is all that far removed from the pureed baby food era of family life, so this judgement is perhaps not representative of the reaction of the population at large.
They have also set up a proper souvenir shop in the Moscow Space Museum foyer, although Mama thinks they need more interesting mugs, and also wonders why they do not sell the space food there. We just wanted the Belka and Strelka toys. And magnets. And, I dunno, pencil sharpeners. Whatever there are the cute space dogs on really. Although I was also impressed by the professional looking telescopes.
What they have taken away since our last visit are the very blue, very plush, very strokable rope barriers. Noooooooooooooo! But probably sensible, given that you were not supposed to touch them. Mama likes to think the decision was made after she helpfully pointed out this problem in our original post about the Cosmonautics Museum in Moscow.
The museum does still have the best entrance marker of any museum evah. A sliver rocket soaring on a silver smoke trail elegantly high into the sky. At its base are two very Soviet murals, whose supermen (and dogs) marching gloriously forward into the heavens does not, in this instance, look at all overdone. Mama had been admiring it for years before she ever made it into the museum.
Do not dither in the same way yourself and do not let the shiny distraction of the new Cosmos Pavillion in VDNKh, or the fact that you can go on a tour to Star City, the actual current cosmonaut/ astronaut training area outside of Moscow, distract you – the Memorial Museum of Cosmonauitics is still very very worth visiting. It’s important, it’s interesting, it’s beautiful and it’s really really well air-conditioned.
This post has been considerably revised from the original 2014 version after a recent visit.
Opening: 11am to 7pm every day except Monday, when is is closed, and Thursday, when it is open until 9pm.
Price: Adults – 250 rubles, Children over seven (and other concessions) – 100 rubles, Children under seven – free. The photography pass (which you MUST get if you have a camera) is 230 rubles.
By Metro: The nearest station is ВДНХ (VDNKh) on the orange line. It is about 100m to the museum entrance past a couple of cruise missiles if you come out of the exit near the front of the train (assuming you are travelling out from the centre), but if you choose the exit past the rear carriages, you can walk up a pedestrian-only avenue lined with cosmonaut-planted trees, busts of famous space-programme-related people, stars commemorating important cosmic milestones, and a damn big solar system sculpture-come-sundial. Luckily, whatever exit you choose, you can’t miss the museum. Head for the rocket.
A good three years back Mama visited the State Darwin Museum in Moscow for the first time and fell in love. We returned recently to find that not only is it just as good as it was the first time were were there, in all the ways described below, but that they have actually managed to up the level of fabulousness even more. There is now an impressive surround sound surround video experience to greet you in the first exhibition hall, and a new touchy feely area full of interactive educational games off the foyer, in addition to all the ones still in existence in the second building.
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.
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. Including a walrus that must be giving the one at the Horniman a run for its money.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 firmly in the bud that he might pick up, because, say, to take an example not at all at random, his (British) teacher has told him everything springing fully formed from the head of a god within a seven day time period is what he believes.
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 London NHM or the Horniman. 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.
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. My Stupendous Big Brother liked the computer games. Name that animal! Match the animal to their tracks! Match the animal to their habitat!
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.
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!
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 through the rooms on the history of natural history briskly 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) 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 roubles 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. It is probably 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.
Update: It is busier in the winter, but not unpleasantly so, and we still got to play with all the buttons and so on as much as we wanted.
Mama thinks you should go to the Darwin Museum if you are ever in town, if not for the evolutionary science, then for the shining example of how to lift a museum out of the ordinary.
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 on school trips. How cool is that?
Opening: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm. Closed Monday and the last Friday of every month.
Price: 400 roubles for adults for main set of exhibition halls. Kids over 7 are 150 roubles. You pay extra for various other aspects of your visit, including the interactive play area.
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.
Mama has this vague idea in her head that fossil collecting is a very British and specifically Victorian thing to do, reinforced by her visits to the Natural History Museum in London. Its feverishly over-imagined Gothic vibe is, she says, about as Victorian as it is possible to get without actually getting unnecessarily worked up when somebody shows a bit of ankle.
So the Orlov Paleontology Museum in Moscow came as a bit of a shock. It’s very big. It’s full of bones. Could it be that Russia has, perhaps, MORE dinosaur bits than Mama’s motherland?
UPDATE: We revisited this museum recently after our first visit in 2015 and, shockingly, there are STILL an unreasonably large number of dinosaur skeletons there! Couple of new pictures for you though and a surprise revelation at the end.
Of course, Russia is relatively large areawise. Mama’s personal moment of horrified realisation of that, since we are sharing this sort of embarrassing revelation already, came when she was watching the weather forecast one day.
Did you know it takes three maps to sketch out the vaguest overview of this sprawling landmass, with each point identified representing distances which would take you from at least London to Edinburgh in a properly proportioned country? Mama had to lie down in a dark room for some considerable time after cogitating too carefully on that. Russia is the sort of size that triggers Mama’s latent agoraphobia.
It’s probably best not to tell her about the nine time zones and how long it takes to chug along over to Lake Baikal on the Trans Siberian Express (six days. SIX DAYS! And that’s not even end to end of the country by any means.
Oh dear. Mama is off having another little lie down).
Anyway. Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that Russia, a country which we can probably agree, withoutgoingintotoomuchdetail, is big, has managed to scavenge quite a few bits and pieces of fossilised ancient lizard and prehistoric mammal. But quite clearly it did. To Mama.
Not an unpleasant surprise, of course! Who doesn’t like wandering around looking at giant sloth skeletons, giant tapir skeletons, a giant diplodocus skeleton, small but vicious-looking velociraptors, a huge mammoth, a small mammoth, many mammoth trophy heads on the wall and a few more tusks scattered artfully around, big birds, no bigger than that, and various squat shapes which all looked as though they were getting ready to charge at us through the glass. Also in skeleton form.
Now Mama would not be prepared to swear that absolutely every single one of those bones is original. Much reconstruction with plastercasts has almost certainly happened, but it has happened well and is most impressive all the same to small people who can spend hours leafing through the monster books and spew long strings of what Mama thinks are unpronounceable syllables in two languages in delighted recognition.
Which may be why the Paleontology Museum in Moscow leans towards the old skool when it comes to interactive features. In that there aren’t any. Mama thinks this is a bit of a shame and that the Paleontology Museum should go and look at the Darwin Museum to see just how much more fabulousness is waiting to be unlocked without needing a radical upgrade. More stuff to touch and move around and something that fills the air with roars is my recommendation.
That way you won’t have the unfortunate incident that we nearly had when we came across the many thousand year old rock covered with cave paintings. While Mama was transfixed by the UTTER COOLNESS of the exhibit, I was attracted by the shiny smoothness and reached out a hand and…
Let’s hope that one is one of the reproductions, eh? The Paleontology Museum is quite clearly a firm favourite with the children of Moscow and their parents and I can’t imagine I am the only small person who has had their tactile limits tested by the time they get to this, one of the last items on display.
That said, if you are Mama’s advanced age and bored by bones, the Paleontology Museum in Moscow is still worth a visit for the art. Every room has enhancements in the form of monstrous mosaics, murals, enamelled installations and suchlike.
With the tone being set by the terribly lizardy wrought iron gates at the entrance.
Look out also for the pterodactyl shaped doorhandles and the similarly Jurassic window coverings!
But our favourite was the courtyard overlooked by many of the rooms of the museum. Giant dinosaur sculptures and similar! I’ll just say that again. Giant! Dinosaur! Sculptures! And Similar! Looking a bit the worse for wear, admittedly, but if the people out there with the tape measures and enthusiastically waved hands are anything to go by, they may well be in tip top condition and ready for lounging amongst when we go in the summer. UPDATE: Nope. Still just a courtyard full of giant dinosaur sculptures and similar. I say just…
Preferably with coffee. Says Mama. I’d go for ice cream myself. Unfortunately, the Paleontology Museum does not provide such things on its territory, or at least it didn’t when we went in the autumn. This is a bit of a shame as it’s quite a slog down a multi lane highway from the Metro, where all the food options are – at least TEN MINUTES brisk march. And that’s if you aren’t burdened by a small complaining bundle, which Mama was on the way back as I was coming down with something and had only been sustained round Moscow’s Paleontology Museum by my feverish interest in all things large and scaly, and barely that by the end of the five hundredth room.
There is a toy kisok though. In fact there are TWO, and this is, of course, far FAR more important than mere bodily refreshment. The entrance price is extremely reasonable, and thus Mama was inclined to reward the Paleontology Museum by spending money in its shops. UPDATE: Scored two make your own dinosaur kits this time round. The kiosks are still there, and still fabulous, the cafe is still non-existent.
Yes, it’s that good. Go. Bring your own snacks, a sense of wonderment and either a smartphone someone to translate the Russian explanatory placards if awed gawping alone isn’t good enough for you. Because UPDATE Mama discovered on a recent visit that you can download a free app and listen for either an audio tour or read about the Orlov Paleontology Museum’s collections IN ENGLISH! Not that she got a chance to do stand around idly listening to people talk in her ear with us there. But nice to know the option exists.
Opening: Wednesday through Sunday 10am to 6pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Admission: Adults: 300 roubles (£3). Over 7s: 150 roubles (£1.50). No need to buy a photography ticket here – that’s included.
By Metro: You can either get off at Tyopliy Stan or Konkovo on the orange line. The website has a particularly helpful pictorial guide of how to get to the Paleontology Museum from both stations, but basically it’s a trek along the multi lane highway that is Profsoyuznaya Ulitsa and there you are you are.