400,000 stuffed animals at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

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.

Big Cats Darwin Museum MoscowThree 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.

Wolves and Moose Darwin Museum Moscow

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.Walrus Darwin Museum MoscowWhich 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.

Guinea Pigs and Evolution Darwin Museum Moscow

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.

Dogs Darwin Museum Moscow

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

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!

Computer Game Darwin Museum Moscow

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!

Evolution of horses Darwin Museum Moscow

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.

Live insects Darwin Museum Moscow

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.Dragon Darwin Museum Moscow

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.

Orangutan Darwin Museum MoscowBut 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?

More Information

The State Darwin Museum website (in English).

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

Address: 117292, Moscow, 57/1 Vavilova Ulitsa

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

Price: 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.

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The Darwin Museum of evolution in Moscow is an excellent museum not just because it contains 400 000 stuffed animals. Its interactive enhancements are both well thought out and fun.

 

Lepim i Varim: eating at a pelmeni restaurant in Moscow

What is the best food to eat while you are on a visit to Russia? I expect is a question constantly on everybody’s lips.

Perhaps it’s the cabbagey beetroot soup borscht? Beef stroganoff? Blini and caviar? Chicken kiev?

Or does everyone just drink vodka for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

And there is always the ambitious combination of pizza and sushi we wrote about earlier.

Well.

One of the most ubiquitous Russian dishes you’ve probably never heard of is pelmeni. You’ve probably never heard of it because it generally gets translated a ‘dumplings’ which doesn’t sound very appetising. Although in fact they are much more like ravioli.

Or the Polish pierogi, except that the difference between pierogi and pelmeni is that instead of boiling and frying them, you just boil them. The pelmeni dough is also thinner, each individual pelmen is smaller, and the filling is usually raw, and minced meat based, before you cook it.

It’s a convenience food, but a convenience food which originated in Siberia (possibly by way of China), where it is quite easy to keep a little bag of pastry encased meat balls frozen while you schlep through the forest looking for something to kill and turn back into more pelmeni. The name may, in fact, come from one of the indigenous Siberian languages, and in its original form sounded like ‘dough ears’. And they do look rather like pasty looking severed ears, all ready to eat.

Pelmeni Lepim i Varim Moscow

Tasty ears though. Mmmmmmmmm.

Pelmeni are cheap and sold in every kind of food shop in Russia. All you have to do at home is pull a bag out of the freezer and dump them straight in boiling hot water for 15 minutes, drain them and add sour cream, and maybe a knob of butter. Some people like to serve them with a lot of the broth produced by the cooking process too. And Papa will probably sprinkle over dill if Mama isn’t there to stop him.

Of course, homemade pelmeni are a thing, but it’s a lot like making your own sausages. A lot more bother than is really worth it when the packet from Sainsbury’s is so close and so tasty. The only time Mama and Papa ever did it was when their supply dried up in the UK. It was fun, but took a lot of kitchen space, time and everyone got covered in flour. And then we’d polished the results of all our labours off within a week or so.

We do have a handy pelmeni making implement though. Somewhere. Shame Mama doesn’t know where it is right now as it would make a fabulously obscure picture for your next pub quiz.

Anyway, now we are in Moscow, we eat them fairly regularly for tea.

So you might be wondering why we would bother going to a restaurant which specialises in pelmeni recently. It’s not like Mama spends a lot of her time sampling the local foodie restaurant scene. Couldn’t she have chosen something a bit more exotic when she had the chance?

Ah but you see, this restaurant chain, Lepim i Varim (‘mould and boil’), touted as the best pelmeni restaurant in Moscow, also consistently tops Trip Advisor’s rankings for all restaurants and cafes in Moscow. Someone as curious as Mama can’t but want to find out why, given that the place is actually within her price range, otherwise known as ‘not much more expensive than McDonald’s’.

Lepim i Varim pelmeni restaurant Moscow

Which is particularly true as children under seven (that’s me!) eat for free. The children’s menu is a bit abbreviated and the portions are smaller, but since what I wanted anyway were the classic Siberian pork and beef pelmeni, and I could only eat five of the six in my bowl, Mama calls that a win. Everyone else just gets free bread and sweeties. You do have to pay for coffee though.

Of course, the Lepim i Varim menu goes a bit further than just your basic meat mix. You can get lamb, crab, salmon, mashed potato, beef and mushroom, cottage cheese, chicken or cherry filled ones, to name a few of the options, all with their own differently shaped or coloured dough surround. Technically, this variety would make some of the offerings vareniki rather than pelmeni, but you can go too far in trying to distinguish between the all the variations of stuffed dough pockets in my opinion.

We added to my choice the lamb and coriander pelmeni, which Mama highly recommends, and the ones with mushrooms in, because Mama, inexplicably, really likes mushrooms. Next time she thinks we should go for the potato ones because they come with crispy onions. Or the cheese ones. Or the salmon. Or perhaps… I think we might be returning to Lepim i Varim regularly.

To add a further twist you can choose to add not only the traditional sour cream, but all sorts of other sauces and a salad accompaniment from the display case next to the counter. They also offer cold drinks here too, or you can order tea, coffee or broth with you pelmeni.

Lepim i Varim pelmeni restaurant in Moscow

Yes, Lepim i Varim is an order at the counter and wait till they call your name sort of place. In compensation, my Hungry Big Brother was very amused by the names of the dishes that were yelled out, which are slightly whimsical in nature: ‘say “cheeeeeeese”‘ (cheese), or ‘rich inner world’ (offal) anyone? And if the servers are feeling particularly gung-ho they might give an amusing twist to the customer’s name they are calling too.

Other items on offer include soup. Borscht! Or for my Hungry Big Brother, chicken noodle soup.

Chicken noodle soup Lepim i Varim Moscow

In fact, there was even a bar at one end of the restaurant Mama took us to at Prospect Mira. I have no idea if there is a bar in every Lepim i Varim, but I daresay this mix of hearty uncomplicated food, the easy going atmoshpere, the comfortable seating, the very reasonable prices, the welcoming attitude towards young children, the easily available booze and the free bread contributed to the mix of families and people in their teens and twenties who were occupying the tables when we were there.

Other attractions include the retro styling, complete with obligatory Soviet pot plants, and the opportunity to watch some of Lepim i Varim’s expert pelmeni makers at work through the glass wall into the kitchen.

How to make pelmeni at Lepim i Varim Moscow

Big up to the ladies at the Prospect Mira branch for their good-humoured tolerance of Mama sashaying back and forth in front of them taking All The Pictures. We never put up with that sort of behaviour.

Clearly if you are in Moscow you have to eat pelmeni and Lapim i Varim is a pelmeni restaurant in Moscow you can trust to provide you with a good introduction to this typical Russian food. Three locations in the capital and one in Tula and counting!

More information

Lepim i Varim’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about chicken noodle soup.

Address: We went to Prospect Mira 26/1, Moscow, 129090. Metro: Prospect Mira (brown and orange lines). There is also one in the central location of Stoleshnikov Pereulok 9/1, Moscow, 107031. Metro: between Okhotny Ryad/ Tverskaya/Ploshard Revolutsii (red/ green/ dark blue lines) or Kusnetsky Most (purple line). And another at Leninskaya Sloboda, 26, StrEAT in Roomer, Moscow, 115280. Metro: Avtozovodskaya (green line).

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Lepim i Varim is a pelmeni restaurant in Moscow and frequently the top rated restaurant on Trip Advisor for the capital

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Pet fish at the Moscow Sea Aquarium at Chistye Prudy

Sometimes Mama wonders why she pays large amounts of money to get into dedicated animal experience venues when we can be endlessly amused by the hamsters and goldfish at the local pet shop. Not to mention the bearded dragons.

This is presumably the thinking behind the Moscow Sea Aquarium at Chistye Prudy, which is, basically, a largish pet fish shop. With extra tanks round the back you can pay to go and see separately.

Tropical fish Moscow Sea Aquarium Chistye Prudy

As a result, the fish viewing area is not particularly styled. The tanks are simply tanks. They have not been turned into a replica of the Amazon made from fibreglass and low lighting. They are no floor to ceiling underwater experiences, which surround you with water and marine wildlife. They also do not play you soothing music as you trundle round.

There are no giant killer whales or seals or anything which requires a large amount of space and the willingness to ignore people who suggest that perhaps keeping killer whales in captivity is a bit un 21st century.

There are some (modestly sized) sharks though! And rays under the glass floor. That’s pretty cool.

Sharks Moscow Sea Aquarium Chistye Prudy

The Moscow Sea Aquarium also has a pretty decent selection of brightly coloured tropical fish, seahorses, a few jellyfish, and some rather astonishing snakey eely things. Also piranhas.

And crabs.

Crab Moscow Sea Aquarium Chistye Prudy

And this rather excellent turtle. It’s an alligator snapping turtle, in case you didn’t know, and actually the reason why I got to go to this aquarium. Animal Mad Big Brother was watching another of his many endless wildlife programmes about this, and remembered that they have one here.

Snapping Alligator Turtle Moscow Sea Aquarium Chistye Prudy

And although I was a bit taken aback by the relatively small size of the place, in truth, I can get a bit bored in the bigger aquariums. The Moscow Sea Aquarium had the perfect number of aquatic displays for me to be pleased by the variety without testing my patience. Despite being a bit disappointed there were no real crocodiles.

Plus, it is warm and moist and tropical inside and Mama’s glasses steamed up and everything, which reassures you that it isn’t just your average pet shop. Luckily they have a makeshift cloakroom in a broom cupboard next to the water filters, so we did not have to swelter our way around the tanks in our winter weather grade layers.

At the end there are some drawing stations with fish-themed pictures to colour in. Always welcome, are colouring in opportunities. We did five. Each. Mama does occasionally also wonder why she takes us out at all when we end up being most enthusiastic about doing all the things we could quite happily get on with at home while she puts her feet up and noodles around on the Internet.

All in all, if you want to kill an hour or so in a child-friendly way on a walk round the Garden Ring pedestrian boulevard that encircles the centre of Moscow, this isn’t a bad way to do it. Plenty of little coffee shops, skating opportunities, cat cafes and other minor items of interest to occupy you nearby too.

It’s also cheaper than dragging the kids out to the back of VDNH to the expensive if considerably more glamorous and extensive Mosqvarium. But the Moscow Sea Aquarium at Chistye Prudy is a strictly amateur affair, as aquariums go, so manage your expectations accordingly, and be warned that the price is perhaps a little on the high side for what it is. A hangover from the days when it was the only fish game in town, perhaps.

Gotta feed the underwater animals though! And obviously if you are actually shopping for pet fish, this place is presumably a cut above you average pet shop in that department. Not that Mama would know. We have had fish and if Mama is honest she was quite pleased to abandon them in the UK (to a good home) because fish require a lot of cleaning out, she found. So she is not in the market for any more.

Mama is not a good parent to a budding naturalist really. We do have a budgie though. Which Animal Mad Big Brother mucks out.

More information

The Moscow Sea Aquarium’s website (in Russian).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about freshwater aquarium equipment.

Address: Chistye Prudy Bulvar, 14/3, 101000

Opening: Every day 10am to 8pm.

Admission: Adults: 400 roubles in the week, 500 roubles at weekends; kids 3 – 12 years old: 250 roubles in the week, 300 roubles at the weekend. There are is a tour you can sign up to (and pay for) too, and you can also pay extra to see them feed the sharks.

Getting there: The nearest Metro stations are Chistye Prudy/ Turgenevskaya/ Sretensky Bulvar (red line/ orange line/ light green line), or Kitai Gorod (orange line/purple line). It’s a good ten minute walk from either, but a very pleasant one.

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The Moscow Sea Aquarium at Chistye Prudy is a small family friendly fish filled attraction in the centre of Moscow

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Why Vernissage in Ismailovo is the best place to buy souvenirs in Moscow

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a foreign tourist in Russia, whether or not in possession of a fortune, must be in want of a matryoshka doll.

And this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding Muscovites, that it is not at all difficult to find one’s rightful aide memoire in the various souvenir shops, stalls, or by walking down the Old Arbat, albeit at a price.

But if you want more of an experience, Mama’s top tip for the best place to buy souvenirs in Moscow is to travel a bit outside the centre to Vernissage in Ismailovo, next to the idyllic Ismailovsky Park. There you will find the largest affordable souvenir market in Moscow along with arts, crafts, antiques, and a flea market. Which also has the advantage of being part of the very attractive wooden Ismailovo Kremlin complex.

Art Market at Vernissage in Ismailovo Moscow

Look, ‘a kremlin’ is a fortress in Russian, OK? There are quite a lot of kremlins dotted around Russia.

In fact there are two of this one alone, as it is the second replica of the Tsar Alexei Michailovich’s summer palace in Moscow. The other one is a bit closer to the original location in Kolomenskoye Park.

Palace inside the Kremlin in Ismailovo Moscow

The Ismailovo Kremlin doesn’t really pretend to be anything other than a complete tourist trap, not that there is anything wrong with hanging out in a Slavic theme park in Mama’s opinion.

Inside you will find various small museums on crowd pleasing themes such as folk art, bread, vodka and child delinquency, many with the potential to attend master classes in… what? Matryoshka painting, bread eating, getting tiddly and the correct way to stick chewing gum on the underside of a school desk? Or something. I dunno. I wasn’t there, and Mama and Papa weren’t going to find out, having seized on Babushka’s offer to look after us at the weekend to get up at 6am and go and stand around in freezing conditions in front of tourist attractions that weren’t open yet.

Great time to get some uninterrupted photos though. Fabulous buildings, huh?

The Kremlin in Ismailovo Moscow

Being there so early and winter also meant that there were no brides wondering about looking photogenic – the other thing the Ismailovo Kremlin is for, aside from having a lot of entertaining space for hire, is hosting weddings. There is even a registry office inside and dedicated, suitably decorated buildings to retire to afterwards. If gawking at brides is your thing, Mama recommends coming in summer, when there will be queues of limos and big white dresses.

Mama missed out too on the live action blacksmithing and whatever else they do in the courtyard that leaves behind straw and a brightly coloured stage.

But that was OK. Mama and Papa were not really there for the Ismailovo Kremlin, not actually being tourists.

No, Mama and Papa were there to recreate their pre-children youth looking at the more pre-loved items on display in the upper sections of the market next door devoted to random second-hand tat likely to bemuse the foreign tourist, genuine antiques in the form of things like silverwork, samovars and icons, and other items of rather obsessive interest. Like stamps. Or coins. Or badges.

The flea market at Vernissage in Ismailovo in Moscow

Or, in Mama’s case back in the day, Soviet porcelain figurines, the idle collection of which she would have been considerably less blase about had she known what eye-watering prices they go for now. Still, at least you all know what present to get her.

Flea Market in Ismailovsky Market Moscow

Mind you, her most memorable purchase was a double bass. Look, it was minus 15 that day and she felt desperately sorry for it. Yes, the joinery did all spring apart as soon as she got it inside and it warmed up. It’s more a decorative item than actually something you can play when you live in a flat with paper-thin walls anyway.

More recently, Papa bought her a toaster for her birthday here.

Love is not dead.

Anyway. This Vernissage is the authentic heart of the complex, and has its origins in the makeshift flea market and informal hobbyist swap meet on the grounds of Ismailovsky Park proper that sprang up when perestroika both ushered in a more relaxed attitude to, well, everything and also tanked what was left of the Soviet economy to the extent that selling off your prized possessions became a necessity.

Or your paintings. The name Vernissage is actually French for ‘varnishing’ and is what you call the pre-exhibition showing of artworks, presumably because you are walking around sipping champagne while the pictures are still tacky.

At this time in the morning, then, everyone knows each other and its a toss-up whether it’s all the fascinating little items on display that are the main attraction or people watching the camaraderie of the stallholders as they catch up with friends, do a bit of inter-trading and see what new acquisitions everyone has brought along this week, along with getting set up for the day.

Enjoy, too, wandering around the winding alleys which curve here, there, and down and back up over each other, surrounded by carved wooden structures such as the souvenir sellers’ huts, a windmill, galleried verandas and covered walkways.

Vernissage in Ismailovo Moscow

It may have started in a very modest way, but it’s definitely not a temporary set up now. Although you’ll still find people spreading out their wares on the ground rather than specially provided tables.

Should you actually be wanting to buy a little something to remind you of your trip to Russia, however, then you want the lower sections of Vernissage in Ismailovo, where you will also surely be able to find the perfect gift from Russia for people back home.

There are, of course, fur hats with ear flaps aplenty. Every possible colour, many with a little star on the front and probably all made out of rabbit. It will still keep your head warm, of course.

Soviet kitsch is a lot less evident than it once was, which means that either visitors to Russia have finally decided that having small busts of mass murderers like Stalin and Lenin humourously perched on their mantelpiece isn’t as amusing as it was in the 90s, or they have cleaned out the former Soviet Union of such things already. Not completely disappeared though, and anything Red Army related is still quite popular, so never fear, hammer and sickle stamped items are here.

Red Army memorobilia at Vernissage Souvenir Market Moscow

But what Vernissage really excels at is showcasing the full range of traditional Russian decorative arts, many of which are actually either practically useful or genuinely attractive in their own right beyond just being a way of remembering your trip to the Wild East.

So what are the best souvenirs from Russia?

There are the aforementioned matryoshka, or Russian nesting dolls, of course. Practically compulsory. But you can choose between very small sets or giant ones, between rather simply painted ones and ones decorated with infinitesimal delicacy, artistry and patience. You can get ones with your football, hockey or basketball team immortalised, or the full set of Soviet/ Russian leaders. Or, if you commission one in advance, your own family.

Matryoshka dolls at Vernissage Market in Moscow

Whatever kind of matryoshka you want, you will be able to get it here at Vernissage in Ismailovo.

However, this is not the only handicraft available.

On the more practical end are the soft, so soft cobwebby Orenburg shawls, made from goats hair, and splendidly warm for those cold Russian winters. Mama also recommends the woolen socks and gloves, and these days they are even making highly decorated felt slippers in the style of the traditional felt boots that were once so ubiquitous on the feet of Russian babushkas.

Russian Felt Slippers at Ismailovsky Market in Moscow

I am pretty sure I know what Granny and Grandad are getting for next Christmas to add to their already vast collection of gifts from Russia.

Lace is still crafted by hand in parts of Russia, and can be found trimming linen tablecloths and napkins, tablecloths which Mama possess at least three sets of, but cannot bring herself to use in case someone spills red wine on them.

She does regularly bring out her sets of wooden napkin rings, painted with various scenes from Russian fairy tales though. These are riffing off the more traditional lacquer boxes, where the colourful scenes overlay a strictly black background.

Lacquer boxes in Ismailovsky Souvenir Market in Moscow

More wooden tableware? Try the cheerful Khokhloma spoons, bowls and trays and so on where red and gold flowers are painted over a black background (see the theme here?). Or more delicate porcelain cup and saucer sets from the Lomonosev factory, which also makes animal figurines. And teapots.

Fancy something a bit more frivolous? You will notice necklaces, bracelets and rings made from various stones throughout Ismailovsky Market. Russia is famous for its orange amber and green malachite, but almost any colour is available, and in a variety of styles.

Amber at Vernissage Market in Moscow

Is you house looking underdecorated? Then if you don’t share Mama’s taste in figurines, you could try the blue and white designs of the Gzhel factory, or the colourful, naive style of  Dymkovo. Which look a lot like children’s toys made out of clay and then painted because before the advent of plastic, that’s exactly what they were.

You can, of course, get actual wooden toys, handmade fabric dolls, and outfits in a traditional Russian style for kids. Who can resist those fabulous headdresses?

And at any time of your you can find some lovely carved wooden Christmas (New Year) tree ornaments, including large Father Christmases (Ded Morozes), who are designed to sit under your tree and guard the presents. Do not be alarmed if they are not dressed head to toe in red, this is normal. Think of it as an interesting Eastern quirk.

If you go to the flea market section you might be able to find some of tree decorations from the fifties too, which have their own unique charm. Mama’s pride and joy, which is inherited rather than sourced from Vernissage, is an ornament in the shape of a pickled cucumber.

There will also be all sorts of things, including pictures, made from silver birch bark, and there is always the fine arts market at the very top of Vernissage if you want to take home an actual painted picture imitating the works of great Russian artists, countryside scenes, urban landscapes and lovingly depicted flora.

And if all of this crafting activity is inspiring (and Mama has really only given the highlights), you will also be able to buy all sorts of supplies in order to have a crack at it yourself, a hangover from the days when Vernissage was, along with the flea market, a wholesalers market where the people who sold the items more directly to the public met the artists who produced them, and the artists met the people who produced turned wooden eggs.

Whatever you decide to get, have a go at haggling. It’s expected. But do also be aware that many of the items on display are not mass-produced and take time, effort and skill to produce. So they stallholders will resist past a certain point.

A word of warning if you are thinking about buying an antique – there are rules about taking items out of Russia that have both age and cultural worth, and you need a special chitty to be able to do so. If you really want an old icon, therefore, it might actually be better to get one from the more established shops on the Old Arbat. It is also prohibited to buy or sell medals of any age.

Icons at Vernissage Antiques Market Moscow

But that’s OK as you can get a magnet instead. They are plentiful. Although you won’t find much else made of plastic. If you want a model St Basil’s it will probably have to be painstakingly hand crafted from wood and lovingly painted. Sorry.

By this point you will probably be hungry. Luckily there are any number of snack selling kiosks dotted about, who will also be sending carts around the walkways if you can’t last until you find their permanent location, as well as cafes and restaurants back in the Ismailovo Kremlin. And if you fancy trying out some street food, there are people cooking up some plov and shashlick near the entrance.

If this doesn’t sell the place to you or if you are not convinced by our recommendations about the best things to buy as gifts from Russia, or that Ismailovsky Market is the best place to shop for souvenirs in Moscow, the best place to come to relieve the pressure of high culture sightseeing, AND the best place to discover a fascinating new line of collectibles, perhaps you will be tempted by the news that the same team behind the trendy Flacon art and design complex have purchased land right next to Vernissage. They seem to be planning to turn it into the sort of up market hipster hangout that is proving popular elsewhere in the capital.

One can only hope that this doesn’t send the whole place too far into tasteful blandness.

Just make sure you get off at the right metro stop on your way in. Oddly enough, Ismailovo Kremlin and Market is not at Ismailovsky Park.

More information

The Kremlin in Ismailovo’s website (in English. For a given value of English).

More about Flacon’s plans for Vernissage.

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

Address: 105187, Moscow, Ismailovsky Shosse, 73

Opening: Vernissage is best to visit on Saturday and Sunday after about 10am and before about 6pm. The market is much reduced during the week, especially the antique, art and flea market sections, but if you must go then go on a Wednesday.

Admission: It’s free to get into the market and wander around the Kremlin in Ismailovo territory.

Getting there: You need the metro station Partisanskaya (dark blue line) NOT the one called Ismailovsky Park. It’s a five-minute walk, tops, from this station.

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We think the best place in Moscow to buy affordble souvenirs in Moscow is Vernissage in Ismailovo and we also explain what makes a perfect gift from Russia

T ravel Loving Family
MummyTravels

Discovering the wooden palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich at Kolomenskoye in Moscow

People in Moscow are always asking Mama for directions and she has a theory about this.

Of course it could be because sometimes she forgets to change her streetside face from the British perpetual half-smile to the less welcoming Russian deadpan stare. But in reality Mama reckons that when you are in a place where asking for directions requires the effort and concentration of talking in a language you aren’t completely comfortable in, you tend to be a lot more conscientious about looking up where you are going, what it will look like when you get there, how much it costs, where the cafe is and so on and so forth than you do when you can amble vaguely in what you assume is the right direction and hail people casually for help if your destination isn’t where you think it ought to be or, indeed, open.

You tend to look confident as you stride purposefully along the streets, annotated map in pocket, and this means that other less well-prepared passers-by assume you are the person to stop and dither at.

They used to bother Papa rather than Mama in London too, for example. Although that might just be because Papa gives off experienced urbanite vibes wherever he happens to be, born and bred capital city dweller that he is.

That said, Mama’s particular downfall when going places in Russia is not so much in inability to get people to tell her stuff but read signage accurately, as demonstrated by our trip to the wooden palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in Kolomenskoye Park this winter holiday. 

Room at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

Alexei Mikhailovich was the father of Peter the Great, and this palace, or rather the original as this is a reconstruction, was where he spent most of his time growing up. It was really supposed to be a summer hangout, but Tsar Alexei liked Kolomenskoye so much he had this giant wooden 250 room construction built, which people told him at the time was the eighth wonder of the world.

As you do, when your Tsar is really really into something.

Side of Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich in Summer Kolomenskoye Moscow

This seems to have been the sum of Alexei Mikhailovich’s achievements, aside from marrying two women whose families really did not get on, and dying a bit too early. He sounds somewhat wet, in fact, although just progressive enough that you can see from where Peter the Great got his compulsive need to shave off beards and build an entire city on a marsh in the middle of nowhere so he could get to Europe a bit more quickly.

As a spur of the moment trip out suggested by Papa and a place we had already noted as interesting when we came across it one spring, Mama didn’t do any further research other than remind herself of which Metro stop to get off at. She had even had a chat to the woman in the ticket booth last time out about what there was to see inside and everything! Nothing further to worry about!

Unfortunately, it turned out that there was more than one thing to see inside, and all of them needed separate tickets. This was complicated by the discovery that Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich’s palace was one of the museum buildings offering free tickets during the winter holidays. To some, but crucially not all, of what was on display.

So Mama enrolled the services of Bilingual Big Brother to figure out what we should ask to go and see.

The problem with Bilingual Big Brother is that he is nine and even with Mama’s determined efforts to cram us full of heritage and culture, he probably only had a vague idea of what Mama was after. Translation can only take you so far when you can’t quite conceive of what ‘nice old (replica) furniture and furnishings’ might consist of.

And the problem with the ticket booth that Mama chose to stand in front of this time was that it was only selling tickets for the exhibitions at this end of the complex.

Mama did not realise this, probably because she only bothered to read the first line of the sign that told her about the other ticket booth.

So we ended up touring two (2) exhibitions, neither of which included fancy recreated interiors, before Mama overheard one of the docents telling another visitor that to actually get into the palace proper, they needed the other cashier round the other side of the building.

Which, when Mama studied it properly, did look a lot more impressive.

Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich in Winter Kolomenskoye Moscow

Mama thinks they should have built the palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich the other way round, given that it is in a different part of the park from the original, so they could have quite easily erected it so that the entrance to Kolomenskoye Park is right next to the front rather than the back.

Although this, of course, is why they put up signs.

Hey ho. We got to see a collection of various typical folk art and crafts such as hinges, enamelled tiles, painted wooden trimmings and icon frames.

Russian folk art

Big up for the icon frames from me! They have cartoon-like pictures telling a story round the edges. I was fascinated to realise that the tales are frequently of how the main character is dismembered in different ways. Something I insisted on double checking at length with Mama.

She wonders if my lack of freaked-outedness means it is time to pay much more attention to what I am watching on YouTube.

We also got to see modern artists’ recreations of traditional folk art and crafts in a more 3D format. This consisted of bit less focus on the bloody bible stories and a few more animal carvings, but it was also quite pretty, and largely deserted.

St George and the Dragon

But I was not up for any more. I had already done my bit culture-wise. I had taken an interest. And now I was hungry.

Mama, on the other hand was determined.

I have developed a way to cope with Mama determined, unlike my Bilingual Big Brother who is easy to bribe. I am capable of keeping up a not-quite-subvocal-enough repetitive whine regardless of what Mama promises or threats for literally hours. The scowling is pretty impressive too. She gets her own way, but she doesn’t enjoy it and I live in hope that one day she will just learn that it’s better to cave quickly.

What it meant on this occasion is that we had to take the interiors at something of a brisk trot. Or as much of a trot as we could given that the free entrance meant that there were quite a lot of people inside.

If I had been more in the mood I am sure I would have been delighted by a number of aspects of the fancy-pants wooden palace.

Obviously one of them is that it is indeed wooden. Both inside and out.

Mama, however, was particularly taken by the medieval central heating system, in the form of the beautifully tiled enclosed stoves.

Stoves at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

She was also delighted to find that Alexei Mikhailovich had much the same taste in wallpaper as her.

Wallpaper at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

My Bilingual Big Brother was pleased with the lions in the throne room, which roar. These days it’s all done with electricity, but back then there was a much more mechanical way to impress visitors.

Throne at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

The dressed up guides were pretty fabulous, and we got to see a lot of them as the palace was so busy. But obviously not listen to then because I couldn’t be having with that in my state of mind.

Guide at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

Guide Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

What Mama particularly coveted (aside from the wallpaper) was the Royal bathroom/ sauna.

Bathroom at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

I just wanted the swan in the dressed feasting chamber. Although, as I repeatedly told Mama, it’s not actually real. Neither is the tower and wall cake, Mama says sadly.

Banqueting Room at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

Still, all in all worth tracking down. Just make sure you go round to the front of the palace for admission to the reconstructed interiors first or your six-year-old will not appreciate it properly and you’ll have to take her to MacDonald’s after all.

Although admittedly that meant we had to trek right through Kolomenskoye Park first. Which, funnily enough, is a lot less attractive in early January when there is unaccountably no snow, than it was in spring.

More information

The palace’s page on Kolomenskoye Park’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about children’s treehouses.

Address: Andropova Ave, Moscow, 115487, Russia

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm. Closed Mondays.

Admission: 400 roubles for adults for the palace. Kids under 7 are free. Other exhibitions need separate tickets and cost extra.

Getting there: Metro station Kashirskaya (green line) is right next to the entrance to Kolomenskoye Park which is right next to the (back of) the palace. Kolomenskoye metro station (also green line) puts you at the other end of the park, which is a considerable walk away from the palace.

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Find out why the Palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich was once described as the eighth wonder of the world

MummyTravels

29 Reasons to Spend New Year in Moscow, Russia

Do you experience a flat sensation as soon as 25th December is over? Find yourself locked in a post-Christmas stupor of purposeless chocolate eating and soup making? Looking forward to going back to work on the 2nd January?

The solution to these problems is simple – spend New Year in Moscow.

Light tunnel New Year street decoration in Moscow

The Soviets banned Christmas along with religion, and repurposed certain Christmas traditions for 31st December. They also changed the calender, and that meant that New Year falls before Orthodox Christmas. As a result, New Year is the biggest celebration of the year in Russia.

And includes decorated trees.

Christmas and New Year trees in MoscowLots and lots of decorated trees.

Decorated trees in GUM Moscow for New YearIt  combines not only the same private family eatathon and present giving binge every Christmas-celebrating family will recognise, but also a very public festival, which sees the Moscow streets decorated to the max.

Christmas and New Year market on Red Square Moscow

And very little of it has anything to do with enticing you into the shops to spend all of your money.

GUM and Central Childrens Store Detskiy Mir at New Year in Moscow

Well, maybe some of it.

Either way, instead of everyone lying around wondering what day it is and when the bins will be collected, the week before New Year is when peak anticipation, preparation and goodwill to all men is happening in Moscow. You know that happy feeling you get in the run up to 25th? Totally kicking off for anyone in Moscow for New Year just as you are wondering if it was all worth it.

New Year Decorations Moscow

Even if you do not get invited to someone’s house to consume more salad and champagne than you thought possible in the middle of the night on New Year’s Eve, there is always the option of getting outside and enjoying the fireworks. Firework displays take place not just next to the Kremlin or Red Square, but (this year) in over twenty parks around the capital of Russia.

Giant bauble New Year in Moscow

They stagger it too. Some displays start at 12 midnight on the nose, and some allow you to watch the president’s address on TV, finish your dinner, bundle the kids into a whole bunch of clothes and saunter outside to catch the booms bang whee wizzzes at 1am. If you think Hogmanay is a big deal, you haven’t been in Moscow on New Year’s Eve.

Nikolskaya Ulitsa for New Year in Moscow

And the 1st to the 7th January, when Orthodox Christmas takes place, is a state sponsored holiday. This year, for example, there’s a four-day street festival of even more decorations, performances, food stalls and closed streets to add to the already extensive pedestrianisation of the city centre.

Pushkin Cafe at New Year in Moscow

There’s an ice festival; many of Moscow’s museums and art galleries will be free; you can see New Year children’s shows, called yolkas after the traditional New Year tree; go to the Bolshoi or similar for New Year ballets such as the Nutcracker; and boggle at New Year ice skating extravaganzas in Moscow’s stadiums, featuring ice skating stars as well as outragous costumes.

Street performers at New Year in Moscow

You can go ice skating yourself as well – some of Moscow’s most fabulous public spaces have outdoor skating rinks set up. Including Red Square and Gorky Park.

And on Red Square there is also a Christmas/ New Year market.

Christmas and New Year market on Red Square Moscow

There may even be snow, although sadly this is the one thing you can’t put your money on any more. It’s well above zero at the moment this year and the snow has melted.

On the upside, this means you can get some great shots for Instagram of the Moscow’s fabulous decorative New Year lights gleaming their reflections in the puddles.

Plus, you know that debate about whether to wish people a Happy Christmas or Happy Holidays? Totally a non-issue for this inclusive secular holiday. C Noviim Godom works for everyone.

Spending New Year in Moscow. You know it makes sense. Get planning.

More information

Moscow city’s official site, where at the moment you can find out all sorts of information about what is happening around Moscow for New Year and Orthodox Christmas. In English.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about celebratory meals in Russia (which Mama wrote!).

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29 reasons to spend New Year in Moscow. In pictures.

MummyTravels

Nice ice baby at the Moscow Ice Festival

You might be expecting that living in Moscow you get bored with the snow, the snow machines, the cold, the snow machines, the ice rinks, the snow machines, the snowmen and the snow.

And if you ask my Jaded Big Brother, you might be right. He is a bit over layering up to go out. At least until he and Mama have a snowball fight or we go sledging. Again. Plus, he’s just realised he gets to do skiing as part of his PE classes at school soon. Coooooooooool.

I, on the other hand, really like winter in Russia. Apart from the possibility of seeing snow machines there are outings like the time we went to see the Moscow Ice Festival out in Victory Park on Poklonnaya Hill.

Ice horses at the Ice Festival Poklonnaya Hill Moscow

Icy Moscow is a collection of ice sculptures specially carved from large blocks of ice brought in from some of the lakes around Russia.

Ice mammoth sculpture at the Ice Festival Poklonnaya Hill Moscow

Baikal is particularly famous for the quality of its ice, for example.

Ice bear sculpture at the Ice Festival Poklonnaya Hill Moscow

You can even sit on some of them!

Ice sleigh sculpture at the Ice Festival Poklonnaya Hill Moscow

But not just sculptures! When we arrived, we found there were also ice slides to go whooshing down, with large padded crash zones at the bottom in case you got really wizzy. Which we didn’t, initially, as we were motoring by the seat of our overtrousers alone. But then Mama gave in and bought us another plastic toboggan tray for extra slipperyness. Totally worth it, and highly recommended.

Ice slide sculpture at the Ice Festival Poklonnaya Hill Moscow

Ice slide sculpture at the Ice Festival Poklonnaya Hill Moscow

There’s an even more impressive sliding experience somewhere off to the back but, say it with me, we had to pay extra, so we didn’t. We did, however, find a sculpture carved in the shape of a barrel that you could get inside and slide around in, in defiance of any kind of health and safety caution.

If you get hungry or a bit chilly there are plenty of little stalls about selling warming hot drinks and food.

And at night they light it all up!

Ice sculpture at the Ice Festival Poklonnaya Hill Moscow

So when is it? Well, even in Moscow, the sort of weather you can maintain large ice sculptures in is not the something you can guarantee will last and last, so they time the Moscow Ice Festival to coincide with the New Year holidays. Which means December 29th to January 9th.

Ice crow at the Ice Festival Poklonnaya Hill Moscow

And of course, 2018 being the year of the FIFA World Cup in Russia, this year the Ice Festival will see ice sculptures representing the different countries attending, and not just reproducing the capital of Russia and various animals in transparent cold melty glass.

Are you ready to see the Eiffel Tower (if not the leaning Tower of Pisa) carved entirely out of ice? Doubtless we will be going, so watch this space.

More Information

The website of the Moscow Ice Festival, aka Ледовая Москва (in Russian).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about some cold, hard facts about ice.

Address: Poklonnaya Hill, Victory Park, Moscow

Admission: 300 roubles, or thereabouts. More if you forget your sledge. Even more if you want to go on the big hill.

Getting there: The nearest metro station, which is really right next door, is Park Pobedy on the dark blue line.

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If you are in Moscow during the winter holidays, check out the Moscow Ice Festival, Icy Moscow. Ice slides and sculptures.

MummyTravels

Visiting the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum in Moscow: an (in)famous reputation deserved?

So there was Mama somewhere at the back-end of the 90s standing in St Petersburg watching the unveiling of a new monument and feeling a nagging existential discomfort. This ate away at her for a while until she realised that the reason she was discombobulated was that the statue was not by Zurab Tsereteli.

There was no better sign that she was no longer in Moscow. For at that time Georgian born artist Tsereteli was being almost exclusively commissioned by the then Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, to sort Russia’s capital out with all sorts of little (and not so little) embellishments.

From the reconstructed Christ the Saviour cathedral, through an exceptionally tall memorial to the second world war in Victory Park and clowns outside the Nikulin circus to the Manege shopping mall next to the Kremlin and a whole host of other projects big and small, Zurab Tsereteli was involved as an architect, sculptor or artist and his style was unmistakable.

That said, Zurab Tsereteli has had a very successful career selling sculptures in all sorts of places since his beginnings as a designer of one of the immortal bus stops in the Soviet Bus Stop book, which now has a second volume out! That’s Christmas sorted then.

He’s had projects all over Russia and the former Soviet Union and also in Spain, Uruguay, Italy, Greece and the UK. This one is in… wait for it… France. Only bigger.

The Three Musketeers Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

His ten-story teardrop sculpture to 9/11 (actually called ‘to the struggle against world terrorism’) is installed in Bayonne, New Jersey (Mama forgot to take a photo of the mock up of that one. Google it).

He is phenomenally wealthy and was once married to a princess. This isn’t her; Mama just likes it. The sculpture is of a famous Georgian dancer in reality, and now installed in Georgia. Only bigger.

Georgian Dancer Nino Ramishvili Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

His crowning glory, though, was undoubtedly the giant statue of Peter the Great, now installed on the Moscow River. It’s the 8th biggest statue in the world and something of an acquired taste. Legend has it that it was actually supposed to be a statue of Christopher Columbus and destined for the US. The US refused to take it on, and so Tsereteli removed the head, stuck one of Peter I on, and sold it to Moscow.

Which is bollocks, probably (says Mama). Tsereteli did indeed have difficulty pitching a giant statue of Christopher Columbus to the US but, never one to give up on a sale, he’s been shopping it around ever since and it recently found a home in Puerto Rico. A snip at 16 million dollars. The one here is a preparatory model. The one in Puerto Rico is much much bigger. Bigger, in fact, than the Statue of Liberty. As is Peter.

Columbis and Peter the Great at Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

You can see the similarity, of course. But it’s not the same statue.

Here is a photo of Luzhkov (on the left) looking satisfied with a job well done.

Yuri Luzhkov photo Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

Zurab Tsereteli’s stranglehold on sculpture in Moscow may have been loosened with the downfall of Luzhkov in 2010, but he has not entirely lost his artistic clout, although what saved Peter the Great from being dismantled and summarily shipped off to the reluctant St Petersburg was the new mayor’s discovery of just how much this would cost, apparently.

Now in his 80s, Tsereteli is still the president of the Russian Academy of Arts. He is linked to one of the Russian themepark projects currently proceeding apace (wheeeeee!). His private collection formed the basis of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. And although the MMOMA is now state-run, one of the buildings that forms this art collective is the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum dedicated to his works.

Mama’s google fu seems to suggest it is also his former home, and definitely a mansion house once belonging to the Gorbunovs, before it was requisitioned by the Soviets.

That’s where Mama took us recently.

Well, look, the outside of the building is enough to entice anyone inside, surely?

Entrance to the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

Although when we got in the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum we were shown straight back out again into the courtyard, where there are a lot of sculptures.

As well as a lot of mock ups of some of Tsereteli’s bigger statues elsewhere, Mama was surprised to discover that she was not as au fait with the Tsariteli oeuvre as she thought she was – she hadn’t realised that the mosaic animal sculptures at the Moscow Zoo are his.

Mosaic fish Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

Mama was also very taken with this one. Obviously this is because both me and my Judoka Big Brother participate in judo, although I don’t know what the tiger has to do with anything.

Putin Judo Statue Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

But the thing about Tsereteli is that just as you are writing him off, he produces things like these statues of Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, which Mama do think have a certain something.

Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

And this. It’s part of a Holocaust memorial. In the original there is a queue of such figures, who stretch back and back and back and gradually become less distinct as individual people and slowly disappear into the ground. Mama considers it quite well done, and to support this view is the fact that people thought it was so upsetting that it was moved from its initial position at the very front of Victory Park to somewhere a bit less inclined to make them feel uncelebratory.

Holocaust memorial Victory Park Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

But there are these cool metal flowers too.

Colourful metal flowers Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

And this, which needs no words.

Sculpture on the side of a house Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

It was about now that I started to feel decidedly overwhelmed with weird shapes, animals and people, because if there is one thing that the courtyard isn’t, it’s carefully curated, and so I demanded to go somewhere a bit less busy.

Inside was nice and warm, and mostly focused on better organised collections of paintings. Tsereteli likes his paintings as his sculptures, if not in actual size then in the bold primary colours, thick thick layers of oil paint and unsubtle shapes he favours. Apparently, Tsereteli hung out with people like Picasso, Chagall and Dali in his youth, and Mama thinks he still does.

Sometimes this works better than at other times. Mama likes these.

Painting at Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

Painting Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

But for the areas you enjoy, the gallery is certainly generous with its comfortable seating, accompanied by a coffee table filled with a selection of books telling you more about Zurab Tsereteli’s life and works.

Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow chairs and coffee table

One thing Mama does not understand is why every single person, and Tsereteli does do people a lot, looks miserable. This seems something at odds with his choice of colour palette.

And the title of this series, ‘for my grandsons’, is frankly odd.

Clown paintings at Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

Although Tsereteli must have a bit of a thing for clowns. He has a large number of works inspired by Charlie Chaplin. And a photo of him with Charlie Chapin’s granddaughter.

Charlie Chaplin at Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

There are photos of him with all sorts of other people too.

Clinton photo Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum Moscow

Not disturbing at all was the welcome of the staff, who clocked Mama fairly quickly and switched to competent English. They also let us choose a complimentary greetings card on our way out, presumably for being children with discerning taste in museum galleries.

Mama also recommends a visit to the toilet (you’ll see why) and the cafe in the grounds of the Georgian Orthodox church next door to the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum. Georgian food is one of Moscow’s little pleasures.

And if you haven’t had enough of Tsereteli, he has an art gallery in Moscow too. There’s a sculpture of an apple there (giant, natch). I expect we’ll find our way there sooner rather than later.

More information

Zurab Tsereteli’s website.

The Moscow Museum of Modern Art’s website (in English).

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

Address: 15 Bolshaya Gruzinskaya, Moscow, 123557

Opening: 11am to 7pm Monday to Sunday, Tuesday 1pm – 9pm, closed third Monday every month.

Admission: Adults, 250 roubles; kids of seven and over 100 roubles; kids under 7, free.

Getting there: The nearest metro stations are Barrikadnaya (purple line)  and Krasnopresnanskaya (brown line). Look for the entrance to the Moscow Zoo (you can’t miss it). Instead of going in, follow the wall to the left round to the back of the zoo and you definitely can’t miss the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum.

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Visiting the Zurab Tsereteli Studio in Moscow to find out if an infamous reputation is deserved

MummyTravels

What (not) to do on Red Square in Moscow

Red Square. Is quite red.

Historical Museum Red Square
Red!

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

GUM, Red Square, Moscow
It’s not red!

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

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

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

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

Of course, at night, they light GUM up… yellow.

GUM on Red Square at Night
Still not red!

But on my first visit, it was midday in August. And after what felt like three thousand hours, we were only just in the centre, and wilting in the blazing sunlight.

Red Square is huge, very open, and covered in extraordinarily hard-to-walk-on cobbles. Which also have mysterious straight lines in different colours painted all over them.

Red Square from St Basil's
Biiiiig.

Mama reckons they are either for organising parades or to guide the erection of stages for some concert or other, which are the two things that Red Square is for when it isn’t covered by people in what pass for wide smiles in Russia (or, for the foreigners, fur hats with ear flaps) standing around mugging for the cameras in front of the stuff round the edges.

It’s so hot and so exposed that the only time Mama has ever found Red Square a nice place to hang out in the height of summer was on her wedding day, when she indulged in the Russian custom of taking her big white dress and her wedding party out for a stroll around all the most photogenic spots in town. Yes, Mama, too, clearly has hankerings after princessdom, for all her eyebrow-raising at my insistence on wearing my poufy pink tutu skirt to the playground, and her wedding photos therefore include shots of her daintily swigging champagne in front of brightly coloured onion domes in a large Disneyesque ballgown. Cool.

Not that the cobbles are any easier to walk on in the middle of a blizzard. Or when they are slick with rain. It’s a bit of a slog in almost any weather. Although they do have a skating rink and a New Year/ Christmas market to liven things up in winter.

Christmas Market on Red Square
Check out St Basil’s (still not the Kremlin) in the background!

I dunno, I made Papa pick me up around now and did the rest of the walk in comfort.

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

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
Onion domes! Which are not the Kremlin.

She was wrong. In my then four-year-old case.

St Basil’s is an odd kind of structure. It started when a tsar, promisingly called Ivan the Terrible, started tacking churches onto an existing structure every time he won a battle in a spat he was having with a neighbour. Having sealed Moscow’s supremacy over increasingly large parts of Russia, he decided to set the thing in stone. The architect he commissioned did not just slavishly replace the original wooden buildings, but the best that most people can say about the end result is that it is ‘unique’. There is a story that the same architect had his eyes put out by the apparently very aptly-named tsar so he could not build anything similar again. I think this is going a bit far. It’s not THAT bad.

St Basil's Red Square Moscow
My eyes, my eyes. Are not seeing the Kremlin.

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

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

Anyway, later restorations have stuck to the more vibrant colourscheme, with just a few areas and a model on the inside to show how it might have looked before they emptied the paintbox all over it. Mama, who is clearly a very lapsed protestant, approves of the murals inside no matter how modern. It’s like, she says, someone took the illuminations from the margins of medieval manuscripts and extended them all over the walls and ceilings. Nice.

And even I have to say that the outside is certainly a cheerful sight. Mama says it’s easy to speculate that such brightness is needed in the winter to perk people up through the gloom. But then, she adds, you get to the depths of February, and the skies are a bright blue, the sun is shining down and bouncing off the plentiful white snow, and St Basil’s then moves from being merely loud to almost unbearably dazzling.

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

I spent the visit clutching anxiously at Papa’s trouser legs.

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

Lenin's Mausoleum, Red Square, Moscow
Lenin has not left the building.

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

Inside GUM, Red Square, Moscow
Roof!

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

Air con in GUM, Red Square, Moscow
Misty!

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

Flower carpt in GUM, Red Square, Moscow
Flowers!

Basically, this is the space I enjoyed roaming out of the three available on Red Square. Although if you there is now Zaryadye Park to hang out in next door, which is almost as good.

Still. You can keep your historical monuments, your mummies and your unshaded urban courtyards. Shopping malls. That’s where it’s at. Most people seem to disagree with me on this one though.

More Information

St Basil’s website (English).

Lenin’s Mausoleum website (English).

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

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

St Basil’s is open daily 11am to 6pm in summer and 11am to 5pm in winter.

Price: Red Square is free. Lenin’s Mausoleum is free and St Basil’s is 350 roubles for adults and 60 roubles for children over 7. 150 roubles for a photography pass.

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

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Musing on Monuments at Muzeon Sculpture Park in Moscow

There were quite a lot of people about when the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Iron Felix, was torn down in 1991.

Dzerzhinsky was the man who set up the CHEKA, the forerunner of the KGB, and he was notorious. Consolidating the Revolution required the arrest and immediate execution without trial hundreds of thousands of potential threats to the imminent Communist paradise, and Felix was tireless in pursuing this most necessary work.

Not surprising, then, that after he died, from a heart attack following close on the impassioned denunciation of some of his rivals, he got a giant statue. A giant statue slap bang in front of the KGB headquarters in Moscow.

Not surprising, too, that this statue was one of the focal points of the pent up rage of the suddenly released Soviet population after the fall of Communism. It was first covered in graffiti, and then removed and dumped elsewhere. There is a monument to those who died in the Gulags there now, although it’s not half as big.

There were a lot fewer people to see Felix Dzerzhinsky put back on his feet again a few years later, but my Papa was one of them. If you ever unearth a picture of the historic moment, you will see a short man with a dandelion clock of floaty hair, and that will be him. Mama says. I dunno. He doesn’t seem to have much hair now. I suppose anything was possible in the 90s.

This event did not take place on a traffic island in Lubyanka, but in what was then a rather scrubby open space off to one side of the Central House of Artists and the New Tretyakovskaya Gallery, opposite Gorky Park, next to the Moscow River.

A number of monuments to fallen heroes had been collected here, and were being put back on display. Stalin, his nose bashed off, was erected, rather pointedly, in the midst of tortured, anguished forms, an installation to memorialise the victims of repression and terror.

Victims of Repression Monument Muzeon Park Moscow

But as for the rest, Carl Marx, Leonid Brezhnev, a number of Lenins, a giant hammer and sickle, some generals, a female worker and so on, were just dotted about here and there.

Mark Bust Muzeon Park MoscowLenin Bust Muzeon Park Moscow

And were soon joined by statues to perfectly innocuous people like circus bears…

Circus Bear Sculpture Muzeon Park Moscow

…a cloud…

Cloud Sculpture Muzeon Park Moscow

…and a bare-bottomed youth standing on his shoulders.

Youth Sculpture Muzeon Park Moscow

There’s even an Oriental section.

Oriental Sculptures Muzeon Park Moscow

And a whole square devoted to sculptures made from limestone.

Limestone Sculpture Square Muzeon Park Moscow

It’s all a bit random to be honest.

Especially the great big fuck off Peter the Great statue down by the Moscow River.

Peter the Great Statue Muzeon Park Moscow

But thus the sculpture park Muzeon came into existence and these days it is a rather trendy hangout.

You can wander around the statues, especially Felix, who is looking quite smart and has had his graffiti quite removed.

Felix Dzershinsky Statue Muzeon Park

You can admire the red squirrels Mama suspects have been specially bred to entertain visitors at Muzeon and Gorky Park.

Squirrel Muzeon Park Moscow

You can get coffee or some snacks from the plentiful little kiosks. You can even stroll down the river along the newly opened up embankment towards the Kremlin.

Nobody pays much attention to the statues to the dethroned Communist butchers. There’s no egg hurling, spitting, vigils, flags, respraying or chipping bits off now. Although you do sometimes find children wanting to climb on them (cough cough). And someone does seem to have left flowers at the feet of the defaced Stalin. Mama does very much hope this was in support of the 3 million people killed in the Gulags and the larger number killed by state-induced famine, but in 2017 it’s never wise to assume that sort of thing.

Stalin Statue Muzeon Park Moscow

Of course, if you are foreign like Mama, you will almost certainly be taking photos. One person’s symbol of oppression overcome is another person’s edgy selfie opportunity, after all.

So what has caused this feeling of creeping irrelevance? Time has passed, and times are different since the heady early days of post-Communist living. The promised land of milk, honey and wall to wall freeeeedom and the Russian way has not quite worked out as expected.

Or it might have something to do with the fact that Moscow today is hardly free from Communist busts, flags, hammer and sickles, and statues. The impact of gathering the statues of the unwanted in one place so people can come and point and laugh is somewhat lost when there’s a huge Lenin at the end of the road, arm outflung as if to show the way to Muzeon (or the road to Communist enlightenment, you take your pick).

This might be why almost from the moment that Papa wandered over on his tea break to see what all the unusual commotion with cranes was about, there have been noises about putting Dzerzhinsky back on his roundabout again. Was there any point to taking him down, the thinking presumably goes? Or possibly, do we really want to encourage more such acts of childish petulance aimed at our (former) glorious leaders?

Hasn’t happened yet, mind you, but anything’s possible.

Mama thinks this would be a mistake though. Just as every memorial ever put up says a lot more about the people and times that spawned them than it ever does about the person (or abstract concept) being remembered, so does the act of removing them.

The fallen monument section of the sculpture park in Muzeon is a reminder that the values our predecessors held definitely need critically reexamining sometimes, but you can never, and probably should never, ignore them.

And it helps us remember that sometimes the best you can hope for is that there will be some relatively blameless child able to eat ice cream and enjoy the sunshine in pleasant surroundings in the future.

More information

The park’s website (in Russian).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and Mama) has to say about First World War Memorials in the UK and their past and present significance.

Address: 10/4, Ulitsa Krymskiy Val at New Tretyakov GalleryMoscow, 119049

Opening: 8am to 10pm (winter) or 11pm (summer).

Admission: Free.

Getting there: From Oktabrskaya metro station (orange and brown lines) – turn right, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left away from the giant Lenin statue down the other massive seven million lane highway. From Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. Muzeon is opposite Gorky Park.

Alternatively, the trolleybus route ‘Б’ stops right outside. This is a circular route, which takes you round the edges of the centre of Moscow and hits a fair number of metro stations on the way. It’s quite a fun way of getting to or from Muzeon.

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Muzeon Sculpture Park in Moscow is more than a home for fallen monuments of former heroes of Soviet history.

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