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 She wasn’t sure quite how much fun I would have staring at some dusty, out of date technology, dead inside a glass case, which was how she conceived it was going to be before she, Papa and my Wired Up Big Brother went along.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.
Quite why I wanted to voluntarily spend a day working at KidZania Moscow rather escaped Mama.
KidZania, as the
corporate website puts it, is a kid-sized indoor city using
interactive roleplay to fuel a global learning and entertainment
brand and develop financial literacy in children.
Or, as Mama puts it, it is a brutal introduction to the fact that at some point we will experience the joys of choosing between getting a fun job which doesn’t pay much or a boring job that doesn’t pay much. Or fighting with 700 people to get a chance to do something that looks interesting but turns out not to be. Or failing to get the job of our dreams. All while being chased around by our parents, who keep trying to give us advice about why we shouldn’t just follow our whimsy. Or why we should.
Plus, other aspects of adult life such as trying to decide whether to spend the resulting pennies on pizza, rock climbing or a new car, and then realising that you either haven’t enough time or haven’t enough savings to do any of those.
However, in the spirit of proving that Mama does not always spend our free time dragging us round such culturally improving spots as house museums of unsuitable role models, we did, in the fullness of me nagging about it for ages, go to KidZania.
And it was GLORIOUS.
Says Mama, who found the adult zone, where they do not let the kids in at all, very relaxing.
Look how adult it
is! Supremely tasteful decoration. Mama particularly appreciated the
attention to detail involved in the very adult giant coffee table art
Oh, and my Industrious Big Brother and I enjoyed ourselves a lot too.
This is not an accident. KidZania Moscow (and almost certainly everywhere) really does put the effort in to help us achieve that.
When you arrive, for
example, they have amped up the impression of going on a journey to a
different world by making the area where you book in and pay very
much like an airport departure lounge, a theming which is carried on
as you go through the portal into the town itself.
And it is a town.
There are streets. There are buildings. There are different levels. There is a race track. A construction site. A parked aeroplane. And everything. There is even the Bolshoi theatre. In KidZania Moscow anyway.
It’s pretty big,
in fact. Apparently there are at least 150 different things to do
The first place you
go is the bank, so that us new citizens can get ourselves plugged
into the capitalist system and prepare to take our places as the new
cogs in the industrial machine.
And then off we went. Alone. Because adults are banned from entering the offices and factories and so on, let alone taking part.
The way KidZania
operates is that each workplace has a little plaque outside which
explains the work options offered, how long it will last, how often
you can sign up, and how much you will earn.
Now Mama’s main objection to theme parks is standing in line. But at KidZania Moscow she was pleasantly surprised that this was not a particularly big feature of the day (and it wasn’t as empty as it looks in the pictures by any means).
She did find it paid to do a bit of scouting around to see what was going on, where and at what time, especially for the options that took place less regularly, like hanging out in the TV studio. But it was relatively easy to bound from one experience to another, and the waiting turned out not to onerous. And there was seating!
She was also relieved that we got just as much, if not more, out of the easy to get into jobs as the ones that she, personally, was eyeing up with interest, such as the opportunity to parade around on stage in a play.
Particularly fun were the ones where we got to make something like yogurt or our very own teabag or trot around the city on a quest to deliver letters or put out a fire.
On top of the basic
options there are some additional extras you can pay for, more
extensive master classes involving things like making your own
burger. Mama doesn’t think your kids will feel as through they have
missed out if they don’t do them, but on the other hand, they get a
burger to eat out of it.
It is, in fact, just a rather elaborate way of taking care of lunch (for the kids).
If you don’t fancy that, the town has its very own cafe, where kids can take their lunch break, and the parents can join them for an update on the busy day so far. Which looks like GUM, just to spice things up a bit.
KidZania started in south America, specifically Mexico, and is expanding slowly across the world. There’s one in London in the Westfield Centre in West London, for example. And it’s coming to the US soon!
That said, you may find that copycat ventures have already arrived. In Moscow there are two very similar venues – Kidburg in the Central Children’s Department Store at Lubyanka, and Masterslavl in Moscow City. My Industrious Big Brother has been to Kidburg, and enjoyed it, but says KidZania was bigger and so better, for what it’s worth.
Also, KidZania is in the middle of one of the more fabulous of Moscow’s shopping malls, Aviapark. I mean, if you think it’s marginally weird that people in the middle east go on about their shopping malls, and you want to know why, then you can find out in Moscow (and for much the same reason – weather conditions make indoor play areas for adults as well as kids a very sensible proposition).
Aviapark is, in fact, the largest shopping mall in Europe, and has an Ikea as well as a Marks and Spencers, and room for 35 football pitches (there isn’t a football pitch inside, but there is a huge football stadium next door). Aviapark also has the tallest cylindrical fish aquarium (repeat after Mama) IN THE WORLD.
Parents will have ample time to wander around in a happy little shopping haze, or lounge around the (in places) upmarket food court area while their kids are occupied inside KidZania. If they don’t want to lounge in the adult zone, that is. We were in KidZania ALL DAY. And I reckon there’s still enough we didn’t do, or might want to do again for at least one more epic visit.
KidZania, then, is a
theme park that really lives up to the hype. It’s probably best for
kids between sixish and twelveish, and it probably helps if younger
ones have an older sibling on hand to boss them into shape. But there
were some teenagers bounding around when we were there too and Mama
found that she was quite jealous of having to sit outside and press
her little nose against the window to get an illusion of
And so she was entirely unsurprised that KidZania Moscow does the occasional adult only evening.
If you take your kids to KidZania, and you really should, to be honest, wherever you are, then you will be.
Mama is booking herself into the town’s museum experience, for starters.
Some kids at school, I told Mama recently, don’t believe in Ded Moroz! They said he’s our parents!
Oh? Mama responded,
I can’t believe how stupid they are. Not believing in Ded Moroz. The very idea!
Pffft. Said Mama, clearly agreeing with me.
In fact, I not only believe in Ded Moroz, but also in Father Christmas, who Mama says is probably a cousin, or possibly a brother. It’s confusing otherwise. That they come on different days and in different ways.
Ded Moroz, you see, is the Russian winter festival magical being who brings presents.
But not at
Christmas, at New Year.
And there are some other differences.
As we all know, in
the west Santa was invented by Coca Cola, but in Russia, Ded Moroz
was invented by Stalin.
Well, sort of. Ded Moroz existed before that.
Originally he was a pre-Christian winter smith god called Morozko. And not entirely tame. There is talk of him kidnapping children so that their parents would give him presents.
By the 19th
century he was a fairy tale character.
We went to see a play about him, in fact. It turned out that he lived in a chilly underground world you could reach by falling into a well in the middle of winter (as you do).
If you were nice to him and to the other inhabitants of this strange land, Ded Moroz would deck you out in beautiful (and expensive) jewels and warm furs that you could take home to your unpleasant stepmother and step-sister. If you were a spoilt brat, trying to reproduce this feat while utterly missing the point, those jewels would turn out to be quick to melt ice shards when you got them home.
(Mama thinks this retelling has itself been cleaned up. There was no mention of the stepmother getting her husband to leave his daughter in the forest in inadequate clothing in the middle of the winter to die of exposure, or that Ded Moroz froze the step-daughter to death for insolence, for example. Can’t think why not).
In the 20th century, Ded Moroz was supressed.
But having cancelled folklore and Christmas along with religion, the Soviets discovered that this was quite unpopular.
couldn’t have him look too much like a plagiarised Santa, though.
So he is (usually) dressed in blue. His robes are long, and decorated with rich embroidery (and fur, obviously. It’s damn cold in Russia in winter). And he has a staff (with or without a knob on the end). He rides about in a troika, a sled pulled by three horses. He even wears Russian felt boots, called valenki.
This ethnic branding has been emphatically reconfirmed in more modern times with the increasing emphasis on Slavic traditions in any relevant celebration. Like Maslenitsa.
There is also no sneaking down chimneys. He is quite happy to turn up at your door at midnight or thereabouts on the 31st with a sack of presents and his granddaughter, Snegurochka the snow maiden. Who is borrowed from another fairy tale where blah blah blah, and then she melted to death.
Ded Moroz still expects kids to earn their reward though. Children need to recite a poem or sing a song in exchange for a present.
Mama, who is not Russian, came to an arrangement with Ded Moroz a while ago that this was not going to happen in her house, so the gifts arrive under the tree in what she considers to be the correct mysterious manner. Albeit on New Year’s Eve. So when we wake up to eat a giant meal at around midnight after a bit of a pre-celebration disco nap, there they are! Miraculous!
Of course, we also get presents from Father Christmas on British Christmas Eve. But he limits himself to a reasonably sized whatever can be stuffed into a reasonably-sized sock.
Mama says she and Papa have spent quite a lot of effort, usually, on tracking down interesting things for us for not one, not two, but three gift-giving holidays (Russian Christmas is on the 7th January), and she is absolutely buggered if some old geezer with a beard is going to steal all their thunder.
Apparently you can
visit Ded Moroz at his home, which is astonishingly conveniently
situated a couple of hours outside of Moscow in the town, Veliky
Ustyug. As discovered by Moscow Mayor Yuri Lushkov in the 90s.
But there’s no real need if you are in Russia over the holiday period. He and Snegurochka will be absolutely everywhere, and under the tree to boot. Putting carved wooden representations of Ded Moroz there is a tradition.
Or, in Soviet times (or now, because nostalgia), papier mache ones.
souvenir tip there by the way).
You can go to a Yolka, a special festive performance for children. There will be a play, but there will also be games, dancing and audience participation*.
We went to a very big one at Crocus City Hall, one of the bigger modern theatre and performance spaces in Moscow, which had a full sized indoor fun fair in what Mama is going to call the foyer, but is actually seven hundred large halls of activities. This made it a bit more worth the trek out of the centre to get to it.
They also have a Yolka performance at the Kremlin each year (there’s publicly accessible theatre inside the Kremlin, didn’t you know? Also good for ballet).
But frankly every single theatre, museum, park, New Year/ Christmas market, shopping mall and similar will have some kind of yolka-esque event going on, and some will even be free. There isn’t really a tradition of grottos. There’s just a really big party instead.
Or you can go to a gala ice skating performance at places like the Luzhniki sports stadium. Ded Moroz is bound to show up.
Or enter a kindergarten. Definite Ded Moroz appearances there.
I mean, I can’t promise these people are all the real Ded Moroz and Snegurochka. 2000 actors just turned up in Ryzan for the annual fake Ded Moroz and Snegurochka parade, for example. These impostors are what get the rumours about non-existence started if you ask me.
But I recommend
being polite, and getting your best poem dusted off just in case.
*Do NOT confuse this with a pantomime. It’s a lot… purer. Says Mama, who is not planning to explain the jokes we don’t get if we ever go to a proper British one again.
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.
We now have trees and specially widened pavements on what used to be an unrelievedly grim multi-lane highway, Tverskaya Street, barreling down to Red Square.
The massive pedestrianisation project of the rest of Central Moscow is almost complete.
Cafe culture, albeit strictly in the spring and summer months, is a thing (in the winter it’s all outdoor skating rinks, light shows and street parties).
only this, but you can hire not only bikes but, god love us all,
scooters, the better to idly tool your way round the leafy,
flower-infested boulevards, past the restored facades of
pre-twentieth century mansion houses, factory buildings and churches,
or around the ponds. As well as gasp at the monumental Soviet
architectural doorway architecture, constructivist balconies and such
night, it’s all lit up!
And at any given moment you are very likely to find the whole of central Moscow putting on some kind of festival. New Year, spring, jam, history, fish, teachers, singing, war – we celebrate them all.
I’ll grant you that some of the residential tower blocks in the suburbs are a bit grim. But if the Moscow Mayor gets his way, many of these are not long for this world either. Of course, this demolition project has prompted the Guardian to publish a series of articles explaining how these are not monstrous carbuncles with inconveniently small kitchens, out of date wiring, inadequate sewage systems and nowhere to put a washing machine, but charmingly well thought out residencies and one of the pinnacles of communist social and engineering achievements, which all the former Soviet states were lucky to benefit from. Why oh why would anyone think of pulling them down? And rehousing the inhabitants!
Although they are right about the fact that the replacement of the generously sized leafy courtyards and five floor blocks with 24-story high rises and concrete forecourts is less than ideal. And that this has proved a lot less popular with Muscovites than perhaps Sobyanin was expecting. Possibly because in addition to the loss of pleasant surroundings, the developers and city hall have also found a clever dodge so that the city government does not have to keep its infrastructure provision in line with the proposed quadrupling of residents.
As a result, Mama is of the mind that perhaps y’all have entirely the wrong picture of Gorky Park, Moscow’s most famous outdoor space in your heads. Which is a shame.
So what is Gorky Park like?
In summer, you can lounge around on the free cushions, benches and other seating admiring the flowers.
Or you can hire all sorts of modes of personal transport: bikes, scooters, tandems and so on and enjoy a lengthy run along the Moscow River embankment.
Or get a pedalo and drift around the lakes (there are two).
You can take part in other sports too, with a beach volleyball area, and plenty of free outdoor yoga classes and the like.
There are children’s play areas, which are pretty cool no matter what the weather.
Food and drink stalls, cafes and restaurants abound.
You can also climb on top of the entrance gates to a viewing platform. And visit Gorky Park’s very own museum (it’s on our list. Obviously).
There is even a highly regarded modern art gallery, Garage, to look round.
And an observatory.
Gorky Park always gets in on any of the big city wide celebrations happening in Moscow, so it’s a definite place to consider going if you want to join in.
But you also probably don’t realise how big it is.
Neskuchny Gardens are not boring
with the organised fun, the bit actually called Gorky Park, is really
only the start of it.
If you amble further along you get to Neskuchny Gardens, which literally translates to ‘Not Boring Gardens’. These are the remains of the formal gardens belonging to the mansion houses of aristocrats, which after the revolution were commandeered to form the backbone of the new proletarian leisure facility.
This isn’t a mansion house though. It is a library.
are also grottos, statues, pleasant grassy knolls and a continuation
of the embankment to continue to stroll along. Somewhere there is
also a round pavilion where What? Where? When? is
filmed. A quirky and very beloved TV show, it is something
like what would happen if you crossed University Challenge and
QI, let the participants wear evening dress and had members of
the public setting the questions.
And! Mama and Papa came here for their very first date. Which seems to have worked out quite well all told.
Sparrow Hills are quite hilly and might have some sparrows
If you keep going, you will find yourself in the midst of the wooded Sparrow Hills. Through which you can walk and walk and walk, and take in this fabulous building.
It’s the Russian Federation’s Science Academy. Isn’t the architecture just perfect for an academy of sciences? And if you nip across the bridge here you can go to the Moscow Art Deco Museum.
You are still not done and can continue walking though woods, next to the river, past the urban beach, which Mama does not really recommend you swim from, right round to the Luzhniki football stadium, Novodovichiy convent and Moscow City. Although you’ll have to cross the Moscow River to get to them.
a brand new method of doing this has just started up – taking a
cable car. Which doubles, in winter, as a means of getting to the
inner city downhill ski run.
So, Gorky Park. Well worth a visit, especially if you are in Moscow for any length of time, in summer or winter. Not much to get back to the USSR with (you want Muzeon, just over the road, for that) but a lot of other things to see and do.
Getting there: For the main entrance, you want either Oktyabrskaya metro station (orange and brown lines) or Park Kultury (red line). But there are a number of other entrance points, notably Vorobyovy Gory (red line), which will give you a walk through the Sparrow Hills wooded area, through Neskuchny Sad/ Not Boring Gardens and on to Gorky Park.
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.
Mama has, over the
years, read her way through at least one book by most Russian
language writers who are not poets.
I wouldn’t say this has been a hardship, Russian writers are a lot less dour than they are given credit for. Except Dostoevsky. Don’t read him.
But she has read nothing by Maxim Gorky.
Which seemed odd
given that he was a writer so famous they named the central park
The thing is, Mama came to Gorky via Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, a book about the extensive network of political prison camps, how they came about, what life was like in them, who got sent there and what it did to them.
Gorky pops up in the bit about the building of the White Sea – Baltic Canal, a project notorious for the number of its laborers, the majority of them from the gulags, it killed. Gorky praised it. He also praised one of the original gulags out on the Solovetsky Islands after he went on a visit there. He is supposed to have righted a newspaper, held upside down in protest by a zek (political prisoner) at the fact that they had been cleaned up and given leisure time and so on for the visit, thus showing his understanding of the deception and his sympathies for the condition of the prisoners.
But what he actually
wrote about it was… different.
So Mama had got the impression that Gorky’s fame was mostly built on being a Stalin apologist for hire, and didn’t really feel the need to delve much deeper. Because Mama does not approve of Stalin apologists. Whether for hire or not.
During his time in the Soviet Union Gorky was given a house with a very fabulous staircase in it, and Mama has wanted to see this staircase for quite some time. So off, eventually, we popped to have a look a it. The Gorky House Museum came as a bonus.
This house is one of a number of buildings in Moscow built at a time when Art Nouveau (what the Russians call Style Modern, with a decidedly French accent) was all the rage. The Gorky House Museum is a particularly shining example of this.
Of course, it wasn’t Gorky’s house to begin with.
No, it was constructed for the wealthy banker and industrialist, Stepan Ryabushinsky, who among other things started the first car factory in Russia. This was rebranded after the revolution as ZIL, the famous maker of Soviet cars, jeeps, tractors, trucks and so on. It’s been knocked down now, and is being turned into a cultural centre. Very Post Soviet Moscow.
But the name more properly associated with the house is Fyodor Shekhtel, the architect, who had a number of Art Nouveau projects on the go in the 1900s. Most of these now belong to embassies so are hard to get inside.
He also dabbled in some rather fabulous theatre costume designs. As you do.
The Shekhtel House, then, is thoroughly Style Modern from top to bottom, with the possible exception of the hidden Russian Orthodox chapel at the top. Not because Gorky turned out to be a secret Christian in an atheist communist world, but because the Ryabushinsky family were Old Believers, a version of Orthodoxy that was frowned upon in Russia, well before the Revolution.
Mama sold Art
Nouveau to us by explaining that that artists of this persuasion
tried to do is take the natural world, plants, flowers and ANIMALS as
their inspiration. She sold a visit to the Ryabushinsky Mansion to us
with the challenge of trying to spot as many of these little details
as we went round as possible.
This turned out to be a very fruitful pastime. There are animals (and plants) in the mouldings, the lintels, the wall and door panels, in the stained glass windows, as well as tiled areas on the outside.
Th window frames are particularly fascinating. To Mama (no animals for us).
But when we were
chatting to the cloakroom attendant at the end of our tour, and she
had got out the big Shekhtel book to show us more of the animal
theatre costumes than were displayed on the walls, she also quizzed
us on what we had spotted in the house.
Turns out there are more animals than even my Animal Obsessed Big Brother had imagined possible, even though he had to hang around for quite a long time looking for them while Mama tried to get the perfect photo of the staircase.
Now we know where more are to be found, we will have to go back. Don’t make the same mistake. There is an owl here. Can you see it?
Ryabushinsky/ Shekhtal mansion is a pretty fabulous one by anyone’s
standards, and that’s before you are told it was designed with air
conditioning and spot lighting. And the fact that Maxim Gorky was
given it moved Mama to perhaps think that she had better find out
what the actual deal with was him after all.
‘Gorky’ is the
Russian word for ‘bitter’ and is not his original name, which was
Alexey Maximovich Peshkov.
It turns out that Gorky grew up in difficult circumstances in Nizhney Novgorod, very nearly committing suicide around the age of twenty. Experiences arising from this childhood as well as extensive travel on foot around the Russian Empire led him into writing vividly angry journalism, vividly angry novels, vividly angry short stories, vividly angry plays and vividly angry essays of gritty social realism about the harsh realities of being poor or marginalised in Tsarist Russia in the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th .
A very sobering contrast to the life of a cultured and fabulously rich merchant able to commission elegant harmonious living spaces from brilliant architects and contemplate the universe from his religious hidey hole in peace.
In fact, Mama says as a writer and social commentator he was Charles Dickens on crack. Especially as he spent the (failed) 1905 revolution attempt in St Petersburg constructing home made bombs in some random apartment with a whole bunch of very energetic Marxists. After which he was exiled.
And went to Capri.
Anyway. It was actually Gorky’s pre-revolutionary writings and activities that make him a hero of the Soviet Union, what with the favourable publicity and support that they brought to the cause when they went viral around the world. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature five times.
Obviously he knew Lenin. He wasn’t, apparently, very impressed by Lenin, which is another point in his favour, says Mama, who is also not a Vladimir Ilyich Lenin fan. Although he did agree to front a Bolshevik fundraising drive in America at one point. In the end this was somewhat stymied by him taking along his girlfriend, rather than his actual wife, for the duration. The Americans were not, by and large, impressed by this, despite having much more time for his writing than you would expect given how thoroughly freaked out they seem to be if anyone mentions the phrase ‘socialised medicine’ today.
Mama also says.
Mama is in a decidedly spiky mood today, I see.
Mama also notes that Maxim Gorky seems to have a thing for interesting women, which is probably the best thing about him. His wife, Ekaterina Peshkova, worked tirelessly to advocate for artists, writers and so on caught up first in repressions of Tsarism, work she continued, vigourously, in communist times as one of the most effective members of the Political Prisoners Relief organisation.
And one of his later girlfriends was Moura Budberg. Who was a Soviet/ British double agent. After ending her association with Gorky, she ended up in England, where she repeatedly refused to marry HG Wells, of allegorical time travelling fame. She is also, incidentally, the Half Great (Great?) Aunt of Nick Clegg, which is possibly taking six degrees of separation a bit far, but still amusing to Mama.
What with one thing and another (Lenin didn’t like him any more than he liked Lenin), after the actual revolution, Gorky left and went to Sorrento, along a fairly large household of girlfriends, his ex wife and his children, adopted and otherwise. The reason why he ended up back in Russia again is a bit unclear. Mama, who cannot entirely shake her initial bad impression of Gorky, thinks it is either because he ran out of money, revolutionary writings now being less popular around the world once revolutionary reality had engulfed Russia and the surrounding area, or because he wanted to experience first hand some of the adulation he was nevertheless still getting inside the USSR (being conveniently out of the way).
He certainly got a very cushy number in the Ryabushinsky Mansion, but his return was definitely also a propaganda coup for the communist regime. It seems he was expected to act, as president of the Union of Soviet Writers, as a sort of cultural ambassador and host to writers and so on from abroad, with the magnificent Art Nouveau staircase and so on as a backdrop. So perhaps one shouldn’t see it as entirely a gift without strings attached. Especially as there is also a suggestion that, along with most of the rest of the Soviet Union inhabitants, fear of what might happen to loved ones, including his children, effectively constrained him from the outspoken criticism of a repressive regime that had characterised his early life.
Here is his place at the table set up with tea things.
He himself actually complained that the house was too grand.
Here is his bed.
He also said that he was continually watched.
Hence his behaviour, it is said, with regard to the canal and the Solovetsky Islands .
Sigh, says Mama, who is not one of those people who goes around saying, deludedly, ‘if I lived at the time then I would have DONE SOMETHING’ from the perspective of a comfortable middle class lifestyle.
And Gorky only actually lived for four years after his return the the USSR, dying in 1938 at the age of 68. His son died before him. Rumours that one or both of them were purposefully killed abound. Naturally.
So, it might be better after all to focus on the interior of the house rather than the details of Gorky’s life, and thank our lucky stars that Shekhtel’s architectural masterpiece was, for whatever reason, preserved.
At one point before Gorky moved in, for example, Gorky’s house was a kindergarten. An experimental kindergarten.
!!!!!!!???????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????? Says Mama, worried about her staircase.
Whhhhhheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Say I, and my Obsessed Big Brother has just gone green with envy.
Among the preservees, says Mama, who is clearly determined to cram every last little tidbit of information she knows about this building into this review, was Nadezhda Peshkova, a painter and Gorky’s son’s widow. She lived in the house until 1965 and was then instrumental in having it turned into the Gorky House Museum.
That said, there is a certain lack of fine detail in some of the restoration. Russia, Mama says, is clearly not very used to actually having anything left to preserve and restore, so they do not seem to be doing a very good job of it. Rebuilding whole palaces from scratch in Kolomenskoye and Tsaritsyno parks is really not quite the same. Told you she was in a funny mood.
The staircase, in particular is TOTALLY worth it.
Although we really preferred the jellyfish lamp.
And if you go up the stairs and look down, be sure to notice the turtle styling from above, this being another of the little secrets given to us by our connection in the cloakroom.
Address: 6/2 Malaya Nikitskaya, just up from Tverskoi Boulevard, and across the road from the very church where Alexander Pushkin got married to the most beautiful woman in Russia.
Opening: Wednesday to Sunday, 11am to 5.30pm. Every third Thursday in the month Gorky’s house is also closed.
Admission: Adults are 300 roubles, kids are 100 roubles and if you are very obviously foreign like Mama you pay 400 roubles. Don’t forget to add the photo pass for 100 roubles.
Getting there: The nearest metro stations are probably the three connected ones of Pushkinskaya (purple line), Chekovskaya (grey line) and Tverskaya (green line), although see also Arbatskaya (both blue lines) and their connectiong stations on the red and grey lines, and also Barrikadnaya/ Krasnopresnehskaya (purple/ brown lines). It’s a good ten to fifteen minutes walk from any of these.
‘What, again?’ said my Jaded Big Brother when Mama suggested going into the centre of Moscow to see what was occurring at the Moscow New Year street party at the beginning of January.
By this time we had already thoroughly investigated the winter sports theme on Tverskoi Boulevard. We had wandered down the Arbat, and across Manedzh and Red Square to admire the lights.
We had seen the
fairytale arches outside the Bolshoi and walked up Nikolskaya Street
to the particularly fabulous set of trees on Lubyanka. We had even
been inside Detskiy Mir and GUM, and eaten the obligatory ice cream
What was left?
Well, New Year being the biggest holiday of the year in Russia, a three-day street festival, starting on 31st December and ending on 2nd January. Tverskaya Street, the road leading down to Red Square, was closed off. Stages and other decorative items were erected. Interactive opportunities were dreamed up.
Mama caught some of the preparations. This tree, and there were a number of them up and down the street, took all day to decorate. Much to Mama’s amusement, the whole operation was enacted by men, but organised by a woman shouting at them through a megaphone. She felt that this was an art installation of unsurpassed satirical accuracy.
And it was all free.
We arrived towards evening, as Mama feels that enjoying winter festivals and their light shows should be done in the dark, if possible.
Of course, in Russia, in winter, that means about starting at about 4pm.
Things you can expect to find at the Moscow New Year street festival?
around on stilts. Which makes a lot of sense as you can see them
above the crowds.
Groups of costumed dancers. You may or may not wish to join in with them. We saw angels. Or possibly snowflakes.
Candy canes (not a Russian tradition as such, but hey). Plus band.
And Mama’s personal favourite, cosmonauts (definitely something Russians get as much mileage out of as possible).
There were some chill out zones and covered pop up cafes.
And stages. Not sure if early evening on the last day meant that the programming had run through all the obvious candidates already, but it turns out that Russian rockabilly is a thing. Mama enjoyed this band, Fire Granny, immensely, and insisted on bopping along.
Incidentally, it was snowing so hard you might actually be able to see it in the photos. This winter has been particularly good value for snowfall, and there is definitely something very fabulous about doing anything at New Year and Christmas accompanied by large fluffy snowflakes.
This did not make things easier for the tightrope walkers operating high above the street about half way down. Genuinely awesome, and they had even worked out how to make falling off part of the act. Luckily.
We also got a chance to try out tightrope walking for ourselves. Ably assisted by assistants to keep us on the ropes.
And thus we carried on our way, until we got to the real life hockey game at the bottom, and the people swaying gently back and forth on long sticks.
And for your convenience the whole festival is actually called ‘the Journey into Christmas’ because Christmas in Russia comes at the end of the winter holiday break on 7th January rather than the beginning. It’s good marketing for non-Russians, at least for those who arrive before December 25th, especially as many of the things Russians do for New Year, other countries do for Christmas.
As for the Moscow New Year street party, Mama recommends starting at the top end, near Pushkinskaya Square. No particular reason, except that it’s downhill, and you can finish up at the fair on Red Square that way. Or go ice skating.
Either way, it’s definitely something we recommend if you are in town at the right time.
Getting there: Pushkinskaya (purple line), Chekovskaya (grey line) or Tverskaya (green line) stations will drop you at the top of Tverskaya Street, and Okhotniy Ryad (red line), Ploshard Revolutsiy (dark blue line) and Teatralnaya (green line) stations will see you at the bottom.
Opening: The street party generally runs from 31st December to 2nd January, and the Journey into Christmas festival starts mid December and goes on until the second week in January.
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.
‘Ooooh, is Banksy in Moscow?’ asked Mama on seeing a friend’s Facebook post a month or two back.
As it turned out, it wasn’t the British graffiti artist Banksy himself on display in Moscow but a number of his works in an exhibition subtitled ‘Genius or Vandal? You decide.’
Mama was relieved. The man’s identity may be something of an open secret these days, but Mama has a lot of sympathy with someone who sticks stubbornly to their pseudonymity regardless.
This being cleared up, Mama had no feelings of conflict when she set off, alone, to admire the exhibition. We were out of town, and Papa airily declared that, unlike Mama, he had been to Bristol and seen a number of Banksies in the original. Whatever was in Moscow would not be the same.
Which brings us to the dilemma of holding an exhibition of street art.
Quite apart from the issue of transposing the pieces from the raw urban environment they were designed to challenge into a respectable art gallery, how do you overcome the logistical difficulties of transporting whole walls, sometimes quite sizable walls, and frequently holding up actual buildings across a continent and into a room or two, albeit rooms in the very large Central House of Artists, opposite Gorky Park and within the grounds of the sculpture park Muzeon?
The answer may surprise you.
You. Do. Not. Even. Attempt. It!
Luckily, many of Banksy’s better known works have been reproduced in (Mama understands) fairly limited, carefully authenticated prints. Which is the advantage of frequently working with stencils. So the exhibition consists of a number of these, borrowed back from their owners, and one or two sketches and similar, of the back of an envelope type.
There are also nice big photos of the original works in situ.
Which were usually of typical British street scenes, frequently in London. Mama, overdue a visit back to the motherland, was feeling quite homesick by the end of the show. At one point she actually forgot she was supposed to be looking for the (quite subtle) bit of graffiti and instead gazed at the buildings, the trees, the shops, the road signs, and the people, in undisguised longing for a few minutes.
Other expats be warned.
Also be warned that you are not the target audience for this show.
The thing is, Mama would not have called herself an avid Banksy follower. But what with the fact that she and Banksy are somewhat of an age, a number of his works here seemed focused on her yoof, cycling as they do though the same topics any 20 something anarcho middle class leftie would have had an eye on back in the 90s.
In fact, the themes – the iniquities of the British royal family, the rise of surveillance society and an obsession with the works of Quentin Tarantino – seemed so linked to their time and the culture that produced them, Mama wondered if they would speak to anyone younger, not British, and not currently upset by the death of Princess Diana, the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, and the ear sawing off scene in Reservoir Dogs being set to such an irresistibly catchy song.
It also seemed perhaps a bit trivial compared to some of today’s concerns.
Mama concluded that maybe that’s what everyone thinks looking back on their youthful outrage from their 40s, except, perhaps, the bit about the UK having one CCTV camera for every 11 people or so.
And to be fair, the feedback from Muscovites younger than herself is that they had no trouble relating to the more general points being made by these sections.
Of course, the last thing Mama remembers hearing about from Banksy was the Dismaland installation (pun entirely intended), which was really quite recent, about the same time we left for Moscow in fact.
Banksy took over a large area in a run down seaside resort town on the south coast for a month and together with over 40 other artists created a nightmarish theme park attraction. It featured not only social commentary via the medium of subverted fairground rides and a derelict fairytale castle, but also real life docents who acted like grumpy disaffected employees of the unhappiest place on earth.
Mama followed with interest the fuss that it caused, with some commentators noting that the sarcasm was all rather broad, while at the same time, 150 000 people braved the difficulties of booking a ticket via a sketchy website or queued for hours to get the walk in tickets released each day. Having added some 20 million GBP to the local economy it was dismantled – and the building materials sent to the refugee camp near Paris.
It was all very gleefully satisfying.
Of course, Banksy is in many ways something of a performance artist, one who sucks all around his work into participating. From the ongoing arguments about whether his paintings should be allowed to stay put, be painted over, or be protected with glass, involving building owners, local councils, Transport for London, art critics, buyers, the media and after that, the general public. To the fact that he once got into a tit for tat wall painting war with a more venerable tagger and his followers. Which only ended when the other party, King Robbo, sadly had a (non-graffiti related) accident and eventually died of his injuries.
But I suppose what surprised Mama is that given all that has happened in the three years since Dismaland, there wasn’t more about things like the UK currently descending into self-induced turmoil, as though in defiance of how often Banksy really surfaced in the headlines, he should be out there spray painting furiously at all hours, all night, every night, fulfilling the same sort of role as political cartoonists in the newspapers, or comedians on the TV programmes like Mock the Week or Have I got News for You, churning out topical commentary on the latest stories to hit the headline week after week after week.
And it isn’t like he hasn’t said anything at all.
Of course, Mama mused, it seems Banksy has been spending a bit of time in the US, so perhaps Brexit is not feeling quite so immediate. Mama also gathers one of his current area of focus is Palestine, and there is definitely a case to be made that this is a place which needs attention from someone who has proved very effective at communicating to the public at large in a way that gets people’s attention.
Still, there is another reason than that ‘Banksy: Genius or Vandal’ is more of a Banksy retrospective for the potentially uninitiated, and this is that the exhibition turns out not to actually have anything to do with Banksy himself.
In fact, just this week he posted a screen shot on Instagram of splendidly well-crafted conversation indicating that he might be a bit miffed about it.
The organisers of the exhibition at the Central House of Artists did actually say up front that he was not involved, mind you, but it does explain a couple of things that Mama found surprising when she went round. One is that the tickets start at 550 roubles, which is not 20 quid (it’s more like a fiver) but it is pricy for a Moscow art exhibition, and that’s if you buy online and for a weekday. It’s 15 pounds if you want to skip any queues and have a guided tour, but there are Q-codes which you can scan and get an audio or textual commentary (in Russian) for free. Mama paid 750 roubles (7 or 8 GBP) when she bought at the door on a weekend.
The other is that there is a certain amount of leveraging the merchandising opportunities at the end. Mama hadn’t previously associated Banksy with paying to have your photos taken in the style of some of his better known stencils, or branded T shirts. In fact, while actually at the exhibition, she had spent some time pondering this and trying to work out if this was some kind of new work on the commericalisation of art. Hey ho.
The exhibition closes on 1st September. In the meantime, if you want to see what he is actually doing now, you can visit his website or check him out of Instagram.
Address: The Central House of Artists, Krimsky Val, 10/14, Moscow, 119049
Opening: Until 1st September 2018 11am to 9pm Monday to Sunday
Admission: Adults: 650 roubles on weekdays and 750 roubles at weekends, no concessions. It’s 100 roubles cheaper if you buy tickets online, and 1400 roubles for a guided tour booked online.
By Metro: Oktabrskaya (orange and brown lines) – turn left, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left down the other massive seven million lane highway at right angles. Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. The Central House of Artists is opposite Gorky Park.
By other means: Actually, the bus 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.