One of the main attractions of Kolomenskoye Park in the South of Moscow is that while it has more manicured sections, there’s a fair amount of wilderness you can wander around in too.
We went in late May last year, which is just when the greenery has finally recovered from winter and before it all gets shrivelled by the hot summer sun, and you can spend many happy hours strolling through sunlit glades along largely unfrequented paths if you pick your weather right.
Plus, bits of it overlook the Moscow River, and so you can sit, eat your sandwiches and hunt for ants with a pretty good view.
The hilliness you might be able to detect is also a plus. We might have been able to go for a really excellent scramble up and down some epically steep paths if Mama hadn’t been wearing the wrong shoes. She declined to try attempt it without really grippy trainers and someone else there to help catch us when we took a header off the slope.
Apparently it’s even got a rift in the time and space continuum down there too, the Golosov Ravine, which might explain why they’ve tried to make it so hard to get to. Legend has it that people go into the gully and then don’t come out for years and years. Coooooooool. And one way to survive the immediate future with sanity relatively intact perhaps.
At either end of the park there is more organised fun. If you arrive at the Kolomenskoye metro station end, you will soon come across a particularly unique bit of ecclesiastical architecture, even more venerable than places like St Basil’s on Red Square.
The Church of the Ascension, otherwise known as the White Column possibly because it is constructed in such a way that it doesn’t need any supporting pillars to supplement its toweryness, was built in 1532 and commemorates the birth of Ivan the Eventually Terrible. Yes, I know there aren’t any onion domes or gaudy external painting. Orthodox Christianity does the history of church decoration backwards from a Protestant outlook, and this one is supposedly based on more traditional wooden structures, as well as having an Italian influence.
In fact, dotted around the territory are a whole bunch of other old buildings, because for many years now Kolomenskoye park has been a refuge for distressed, mainly wooden constructions, from all over Russia.
It is also a former royal estate, so some of the stone gateways and suchlike are survivors from their era.
But there are also the remnants of a traditional Russian village, which existed for real until quite recently in the 1980s, allegedly populated by descendants of the peasants who were attached to the Tsars’ estates. Live action bee keeping still takes place there!
Most impressive is the recreation of a magnificent royal palace erected by Alexei Mikhailovich, the father of Peter the Great, which represents the pinnacle of what you could do with wooden architectural design in the 17th Century. You can go inside and examine the fully worked up interiors too, which Mama definitely intends to do sometime in the not too distant future. It’s right next to the metro station at the other end of the park from the great white Church of the Ascension, Kashirskaya. Convenient!
And Kolomenskoye Park frequently holds some of the more interesting outdoor events in Moscow. Mama has her eye on the historical re-enactment festival Time and Epochs, which is scheduled for June. Admittedly this year, they are branching out all over the capital, but their biggest event will still be held in this park.
But when we visited on this particular occasion, what we mostly did is wander around the extensively replanted royal orchard area…
…and look at people photographing the apple blossoms.
Maybe there was some kind of event going on. But since Mama couldn’t find any information about it at the time, she prefers the theory that everybody with a camera just looked out of their window, saw the glorious sunshine, remembered that there hadn’t been any wind lately, and decided to make the most of it.
A number of people bought props and costumes. There were swings trailing white gauze dangling from the trees, people!
We made do with our beautiful selves, as Mama was inspired and got quite enthusiastic about us posing with dreamy expressions while sniffing the dandelions. Hours of fun.
So Kolomenskoye Park is a perfect location for a day in the outdoors in Moscow. If the weather is good, grab a picnic and head out. And don’t forget your camera.
Russia is one of those countries which every foreigner has an opinion about.
Of course, what people think about it changes. A bit. When Mama first came to Moscow, it was all food lines, bears on the streets and year round snow. Ten years later it was more about the super rich owning football clubs, bears on the streets and year round snow. Twenty years earlier, it was the stone-faced communists and their threat to the world, bears on the streets and year round snow. We are back now to super villain status – bare-chested, riding on a bear, in year round snow – but through all of this what people have seen as a handy symbol of whatever they think of the country is Red Square and the Kremlin.
They are where gold leaf is frowned on in favour of severe granite blocks and lots of marble, and then plastered back again twofold and with added malachite in the government buildings and state apartments.
Where churches are demolished to make way for the tanks, and then rebuilt with a super large statue of St Vladimir the bringer of Christianity to ancient Rus round the corner for good measure.
Where conspicuous consumption conspicuously isn’t in the State Department Store GUM, and then returns at conspicuously high prices, supplemented by advertising that takes the form of a giant Luis Vuitton suitcase slap bang in front of St Basil’s.
Where military parades now jostle for their place with extravagant firework displays, exclusive rock concerts and public skating in the winter.
Where Lenin still hasn’t been moved out of his mausoleum, but is can be covered by a jaunty awning if his presence is inconvenient, such as when Easter coincides with the 1st May.
Sort of thing.
So of course, you need to visit both. But there are other places which represent the changing face and fortunes of Russia in the 20th Century.
One of those is VDNH.
Or VDNKh, because the last sound doesn’t transliterate very well into English. Try doing the ‘ch’ in the Scottish ‘loch’ and you are close. Mama prefers the second spelling, but the Russians themselves seem to have given up.
VDNH (VDNKh) stands for ‘the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy’ (they tried to rename it ‘the All-Russian Exhibition Centre’ for a while. It didn’t stick). It began as the Soviet equivalent of the Great Exhibition in 19th Century London or the World Trade Fair in the US in the 50s and it is remarkable for the amazing set of buildings, or pavilions, each representing some achievement unlocked by the hero supermen and women of the Soviet Union.
Mama used to be particularly delighted by the fact that if you come in the front entrance of VDNH, the buildings start out being to really grand things like electromagnetic engineering! Armenia! And space!
And then work their way to the back with the more modest structures where it’s all pigs! Meat! And honey!
She found out later that the agriculture section is where it all started, so it’s not surprising that it is curiously well represented if less epic in scope than later offerings.
A tad tasteless, too, given that this part was begun not long after a large number of people had starved to death due to the famine brought about at least in part by Soviet agricultural policies.
Told you it’s representative.
Today there are over 500 permanent buildings, 49 of which have been designated as listed buildings.
What that means is that it has a very very big territory. Mama is itching to suggest that out of all the World Exhibition Great Fairs, Moscow’s is probably the biggest in some way, but she has no evidence to back this up. Wikipedia does say that the area is larger than the whole of the principality of Monaco though, so that’s something, right?
Anyway. Up until the dying days of the Soviet Union, VDNH (VDNKh), as the name suggests it ought to, did indeed host actual exhibitions, conferences and scientific meetings and so on. As well as being a pleasant spot for your average Muscovite to come and stroll around and have popular music piped to them over the outdoor loud hailer system, while eating ice cream and boggling at the architectural masterpieces.
Then came the 90s, and the buildings were leased out to a random collection of ramshackle hawkers. The whole place became like a large, well-appointed and peculiarly eclectic pound shop. You could buy anything in the way of random tat here from one of the huge number of higgaldy piggaldy stalls crammed into every available corner in every possible building. Mama’s favourite find was a two dollar double bass bow. No it wasn’t a music specialist shop at all. They also sold plastic cutlery, cheap alarm clocks, tea and clothes.
So, in fact, also very representative, this time of the 90s in Russia. Rampant but basically ill-conceived capitalism.
They still piped out the latest hits around the park though, and if you weren’t to be lured inside by the thought of browsing for a new fridge, a pot plant and a bottle of not-best Crimean champagne, it was still worth going for the vast number of outdoor side shows and fairground attractions, as well as the large number of barbecued meat stalls.
And then all that changed. Since 2014, the governance of the area has been taken firmly back by the Moscow city authorities, who have evicted the kiosk holders and started a major overhaul of what were increasingly crumbling pavilions.
VDNH (VDNKh) puts on more and more performances, art exhibitions and the like every year, and there’s also space now for really large events such as comic conventions, travel shows, education fairs and lift exhibitions.
And, of course, it has a giant skating rink in winter, sports an urban beach in summer and is the backdrop for some of Moscow’s better firework displays on major holidays.
There is even a thriving equestrian centre. You can go on a tour of the stables, ride a horse or just hang around and watch people putting their steeds through their paces!
This does mean that an awful lot of things are swathed in scaffolding right now or being dug up, so if you visit this summer, the place will not be looking at its most impressive. But in a year or so’s time, wheeeee!
It’s hard, and it’s particularly hard for Mama, who loves the place, to think of any down side to this, aside from the ever-present tension between public spending on the cosmetic upkeep of a city versus pumping extra cash into the welfare and social support system. At least VDNH (VDNKh) is a space that can be enjoyed by all.
Even with the debate about the appropriacy of keeping public memorials to historical regimes or figures which now represent ideals or behaviours we condemn, the thing about the sort of Soviet propaganda which VDNH (Veh. Deh. eN. Kh) is a particularly large example of, is that it celebrates human achievements which are largely positive.
This fountain, for example, which is portraying the gold-covered harmony in which all Soviet peoples lived may not be terribly accurate, but it’s not as if it isn’t something that should be true.
There are undoubtedly some difficult corners – Mama finds the statues to the children who denounced their parents for unSoviet behaviour disturbing round what used to be the pavilion celebrating children and childhood – but broadly speaking it is good to have a vision of humanity to aspire to sometimes, as well as reminders of when we have failed to live up to that.
And if you just simply and purely want to see a bit of Soviet kitsch, which isn’t really that much in evidence in the Kremlin and Red Square, then this is the place to come.
Mama does rather mourn the disappearance of her favourite by the glass wine bar (bar snacks included blue cheese on sticks and olives. Mama is so seventies, yeah?). But luckily they still play you cheesy pop songs over the loudspeakers, which Mama thinks has probably always been the best bit.
Nonsense, Mama. It’s the actual rocket, the real life space shuttle and the cosmos themed playground that’s the best bit.
All in all VDNH (or VDNKh. Do have a go at the rasp) is not something to miss out if you are ever in Moscow, and if you live here there is plenty to keep you coming back and back.
By public transport: The VDNKh (VDNH) station is on the orange line and you will go in through the rather splendid front gates. You can also come in the back by getting off at Botanichisky Sad (the orange line, and also the new Moscow Central Circle Line) and if you don’t want to walk, there’s a shuttle minibus that takes you from this station into the very heart of VDNH too. There are also numerous tram, trolleybus and bus routes going past the park.
It’s always reassuring when you rock up to an art gallery as an under ten, just as we did at the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow, and the first thing you see is a generous number of Lego play stations and a couple of cars you can sit on and drive round a carpet. A welcome bold statement of child friendliness.
But possibly, Mama thought about half an hour later, when we still hadn’t made it out of the foyer to any of the exhibitions on offer, rather too successful in making us feel at home. Of course, that might be the point. Corral the sticky fingered elements well away from anywhere they might damage the displays or be loud.
No matter. Finding places children will willingly amuse themselves for multiple minutes on end is a goal Mama is sure most parents share with her, so regardless of the reason why, this should be a win.
Mama would nevertheless like to complain about the lack of any adult-friendly distraction other than a decent connection to the internet in the same area. In particular, Mama feels that atrium of the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow is distinctly lacking in cafes, given how much time parents might be spending there.
Which is why, a mere forty-five minutes after we arrived, Mama insisted we go and have a look round the place.
The Multimedia Art Museum Moscow turns out to be a thin sort of building, which seems to specialise in a number of smallish ever-changing exhibitions of some variety. Although most of them seemed to involve photography while we were there.
Our two favourites were at the top and the bottom of the museum. The top was interesting because it was a show of the everyday lives of everyday people who live in the town of Slavutych, built for the employees of the Chernobyl power plant, after the disaster. Nothing dramatic, but the photographer had an eye for small quirkily amusing moments, and some very brave subjects, who allowed him into their homes for the duration. Inevitably, though, the picture we liked best of all was the one with the dolphin mural.
The other child-pleasing photographs were the ones where the artist had embellished some real shots of kids playing to make them more like comic book pictures. We were particularly pleased that the thought bubbles were in English (GASP!) because we could make Mama read them all out. That said, Mama was a bit disturbed at how many of them involved the heroes shooting at each other (PEW PEW), which just goes to show you can overcome your seventies upbringing. I would have liked to see more Catwoman (MEOW) too.
Women, however, were very much in evidence in the photographs of the Pirelli calendar through the ages. It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that some of them were NAKED MAMA, Pirelli being a company better known to Mama for making tyres for Formula One races, an organisation not renowned for its inclusion of females as much more than glamorous props. But it was a disappointment that there wasn’t more fast car porn. And it would also be improved in Mama’s opinion, if there were a lot more racing drivers with their kit off.
There were more men in the rooms of photographs of artists in their studios, an exhibition that will probably appeal to those who have a better grasp of art than Mama, who really only recognised Picasso and Matisse. Given that most of the painters featured were on the less figurative end of art it was interesting to see how the end result compared to the actual objects they were depicting, and Picasso instantly became our favourite artist as he had a pet owl, apparently.
Mama’s favourite room at the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow was the one with the large rectangles of patterned fabric with the carefully placed hole in the middle which made them look a lot like the duvet covers that are popular here in Russia.
Mama hardly ever gets to read the explanatory placards when we are with her, but she was significantly intrigued by this to seek one out. Thus she discovered that these objects d’art are, in fact, quilts.
The Empire of Dreams represents fragments from the collective memory of the final years of the USSR and its immediate aftermath. Which Mama thinks is quite clever, although 50% of her is also wanting to mutter about how here is a man appropriating what should be woman’s art. The other 50% is saying that men’s unwillingness to engage in women’s work is a great deal of what is wrong with the world, and that showcasing this male enthusiasm for sewing in a proper art gallery is great.
We just gamboled around the colourful giant hanging hide and seek opportunities and then demanded to go back to the foyer.
Where they had set up two tables for, oh joy oh rapture, crafting!
We immediately got stuck in to making a collage out of stills from Eisenstein’s movies, an exercise which lasted a good thirty minutes or so. Mama noodled about on her phone, helped with the cutting out and wondered if anyone would mind if she nipped off to have another look round.
So all in all, the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow turns out to be an excellent place to take children at the weekend as apparently they have this kind of free and easily accessible workshop every Saturday or Sunday. Plus, y’know, the Lego. Oh, and the small, easy to zoom round, differing exhibitions, at least one of which will almost certainly have the odd piece of art which will appeal to a kid.
If they add a coffee shop, then it will become one of our favourite places.
The power a Zoological Museum has over children is a source of never-ending surprise for Mama, who proposed a trip to the one in Moscow without very high expectations given that we have trekked past what seems to her to be an endless number of stuffed animals so far in our short lives. Surely by now the fascination would have worn off?
She had even lower expectations after I whinged all the way there. Well, really, Mama. If you will take us to Burger King first only to discover they had run out of the plastic tat we went there to claim AGAIN. And then double down on the disappointment by dragging us away from the soft play area after a mere half an hour in order to embark on a lengthy overheated Metro journey when we were dressed for Siberia.
But! She had definitely underestimated the restorative powers of dead animals and birds.
I cheered right up almost as soon as we stepped through the front doors of the Moscow Zoological Museum. It may have helped that we got to take off the padded over trousers, the heavy coat, the hat, the scarf, the gloves, and the extra jumper and put them into the ever-present cloakroom. Although Mama thinks that the giant mammoth mural in the entrance hall also helped.
You see, the Zoological Museum is in an old building. It’s actually not just any old Zoological Museum, but the original one attached to the original Moscow University, housed in the even more impressively classical mansion building next door. The actual work of educating the next generation is now in one of the Stalin skyscrapers on top of a hill overlooking the Moscow River far away. But they still retain their former premises, which are right next to Red Square and opposite the Kremlin.
(That’s the Zoological Museum on the left, and the orangey building at the bottom of the street is the Kremlin. No, it’s not supposed to have onion domes).
Did I hear the sound of travellers with children everywhere sitting up and paying attention? Yes, there is indeed a guaranteed child-pleasing attraction within a very very short walk of the must-see sights of Russia’s capital city. And better yet, it’s good, but it’s not that extensive, so would make the perfect pit stop to refresh a small person’s soul before pushing on to more historically significant places. Assuming said small person’s interest in such heritage-heavy destinations has temporarily waned.
The most essential room is the one with the mammals and the birds. Mama, who is starting to consider herself a bit of a taxidermy connoisseur, was particularly delighted by the mammals. She thinks that there is a certain quirkiness in the stuffing. Take, for example, this seal.
Not, Mama would suggest, the usual presentation of this beloved furry creature, albeit one which from a penguin’s point of view is probably quite accurate. Mama thinks that the ensuing cognitive dissonance might be good for kids, who are generally encouraged to anthropomorphise the natural world to an unhealthy degree.
Of course, the stuffed birds will also be popular – it’s the colours of the plumage and the variety of beaks – but what’s even more guaranteed to please in the Moscow Zoological Museum is that the room has a high number of the larger and more impressive animals people usually go to zoos for. Mama has written before about weighing up the ethics of zoological museums like this one versus live animal experiences, and the fact that these were collected not for someone’s trophy cabinet but to educate generations at a time when you couldn’t just go out and make a high-resolution film of the creatures, well, she thinks that has some value.
Basically, if you want to study the natural world, it helps to know what it looks like, and if anyone is any doubt, they should go off to the Grant Museum in London and ask to see the sketches of kangaroos made by people who were relying purely on descriptions to make them. The Zoological Museum of Moscow University celebrated its 225th anniversary last year. You can see why someone thought it necessary to bring back all the big cats, and a polar bear, not to mention the bison, the bears, and the weird antelopes with the big noses, although Mama suspects that the really scientifically interesting collections are probably not actually out on display, and probably consist of seventy-two examples of the same species of dull brown rat. For, y’know, the purposes of comparison.
That said, there is almost certainly no scientific justification for making the imperial double-headed eagle out of dead bugs. This just goes to show that Russians might not strictly speaking have been Victorian, but that people 150+ years ago were pretty much the same all over.
The other rooms consisted of things preserved in formaldehyde in glass jars, mostly anything you can’t really stuff, and the Skeleton Room, which for some reason really freaked me out. Possibly because it wasn’t bones of mythical dinosaurs but real creatures which might, y’know, rattle to life and come chasing me down the corridor. The dim lighting didn’t help either. I imagine this sort of thrill might actually be a draw for some people though. My Ghoulish Big Brother was certainly a fan.
So my lack of enthusiasm brought the visit to a close, although not before Mama had bought herself a mug as a reward for discovering the place. I scored a rubber snake. My Ghoulish Big Brother got a magnet and a book about fish, which, much to Mama’s shock, he read steadily on the journey back and at home until it was finished. As a result, she’d have happily popped in and got the rest of the series too, if the shop (actually a small table – Mama does worry about the commercial arm of some of these Russian museums) wasn’t behind the ticket barrier. The Zoological Museum of Moscow University is reasonably priced, but not that cheap.
Oh dear, what a pity. We’ll have to go back in the not too distant future…
Opening: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm with late night opening on Thursday to 9pm. CLOSED every Monday and the last Tuesday in every month.
Admission: 400 roubles for adults, 100 for kids over seven (the English version of the website is wrong on their pricing – it’s gone up a bit).
By public transport: The Zoological Museum is a short walk from either of the two red line stations of Okhotniy Ryad and Biblioteka Imeni Lenina and their connecting stations of Tverskaya (green line), Ploshad Revolutsii (dark blue line), Boroviskaya (grey line) and Arbatskaya (dark blue line).
By other means: If you live here and are looking for somewhere to amuse your offspring in the centre, I assume you already know where to park. Cos I don’t.
Buoyed by her success in taking us round the Old one, Mama decided to try out the New Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val.
Good choice. We much prefer modern art, it being similar to the sort of craftings we produce. It does not occur to us to scoff at the fact that the painter has labelled a series of inexplicable squiggles ‘Love’ because we have only that morning presented Mama with seventeen splodges of green we are calling ‘Cats’.
Plus, the permanent galleries of the New Tretyakov Gallery are almost completely empty whenever she goes there. If you are going to take small children round an art gallery, doing it when there are not likely to be art lover patrons who want to study the works in meditative contemplation is always a bonus.
The lack of visitors is odd, in Mama’s opinion. She thinks that foreign tourists from outside of the Former Soviet Union are actually more likely to be excited by the paintings in the New Tretyakov Gallery than the Old, unless they have a special interest in finding out about more Russia than the activities of Tsars, how awful Communism was and lots and lots of ballet. Or circuses. The art, history and culture in the Old Tretyakov Gallery is largely unknown to abroad and Mama is not sure that is what people come to Moscow for.
The art in the New Tretyakov Gallery, on the other hand, contains pieces by internationally famous artists (Kandinsky, Chagall, Malevich, Goncharova to start you off), internationally famous avant-garde movements (Neo-primitivism, suprematism, constructivism and futurism, otherwise known and geometric shapes r us), internationally famous images of glorious workers (Mama’s favourite is the woman posing dramatically with the slide rule) and pictures of internationally famous mass murderers (Stalin and Lenin and so on).
Part of the problem, Mama ruminates, is that really, the paintings all belong to the Old Tretyakov Gallery, which inherited them almost by accident. The core of the New Tretyakov Gallery comes from a private collection of a Greek expat, who, at a time when the authorities just weren’t having the more interesting expressions of artistic temperament, quietly went around snapping up what ought to have been national treasures for an absolute song.
Eventually, Soviet society twigged to the possibilities and the collector started suffering a number of burglaries. It seems that the state then got most of his acquisitions in some kind of deal that allowed him to leave the country with his favourites at a time when leaving the country was, Mama says, tricky. Can’t think why. Mama only needs our birth certificates, her marriage certificate and a letter from Papa in addition to our many passports to break us out.
So Mama always wonders if the lack of popularity has something to to with the Old Tretyakov Gallery being at a bit of a loss as to know what to do with its modern art, suppressed for so long that, by the time they took over, even if it wasn’t outright banned, it was seriously unfashionable.
And, perhaps, a bit unfathomable. The problem with the glorification of forms, migraine inducing swirls of colour and childishly drawn representations of what might (or might not) be a person, well, Mama thinks that to a certain extent, you had to be there. Doubtless it was a gloriuous shock at the time, but now, now it is just a big black square on a white canvas. It’s not even in the icon corner for maximum symbolic impact.
The world has moved on to unmade beds, big unadorned lumps of burnt wood and giant green plastic butt plugs.
Nowadays it is probably also true that for Russians and those from the Former Soviet Union, a good half if it are those sorts of idealised Communist images, or reactions to Communist images, which they must all be heartily sick of, in all senses of the word.
Although someone has certainly given a lot of thought to how to hang it so that philistines like Mama will actually get it.
Kandinsky and Malevitch’s contempories surround their paintings and give you a really good impression of how artists riff off each other in creating something new and exciting.
The room of the joyful and (Mama finds) truly inspirational Soviet images from the earlier days gives onto the contrasting rooms of the official and unofficial artists from later, somewhat less joyful, periods.
The nature of repression and its effect on art is topped with the room dedicated to massive paintings of an avuncular Stalin twinkling his way though various scenes and from there you are plunged straight into the section showcasing what the expat Soviet artists were doing at the same time, with considerably more freedom.
To finish off, there are examples of the sorts of things which artists produced during and after the Fall. Mama thinks that this section is definitely a bit patchy, but then she suspects that is because the New Tretyakov Gallery has only a fraction of the works of that time and, in any case, coherent movements were definitely not really what that era was about.
They do also have exhibitions, and these are actually very well attended and included in the price of your general entrance ticket. But they focus on retrospectives rather than new works, and often of artists who feature more in the Old Gallery.
The New Tretyakov Gallery is, in fact, a museum of 20th Century art not an art gallery as such. You should go and see it though and don’t let them fob you off with the Old Gallery. It’s a very interesting museum of art for anyone who hasn’t had to deal with the reality of living under or in the aftermath of the Soviet years. And most of it has extensive English text to explain things, as well as an audio guide option.
But don’t be expecting to buy anything too exciting afterwards. The shop is absolutely minimal, consisting of one small kiosk, rarely, in Mama’s experience, actually open.
And the cafe never has been. Not once in the actually quite large number of time Mama has been there. Luckily, the sculpture park surrounding the New Tretyakov Gallery, Museon, has a number of small coffee and snack vendors dotted around, and the time we were there there were also at least two places selling more substantial meals further along the building. You could also hop over the road to Gorky Park, or head back towards the metro too, all of which have more places to eat.
We enjoyed our time in the gallery, wildly creepy black and white final exhibition notwithstanding.
We expressed our opinion that Kandinsky mainly painted dinosaurs; tried out some of the poses, particularly of the more anatomically challenged figures; found all the naked people in the radical Where’s Wally painting (see above), especially the three breasted ones; descended with glee on the multimedia visual sound poems like the children of the push button Internet age we are; and kept a look out for the docents to distract so Mama could snap a few pictures. The trick is to smile and show them your toy lizard. They loved that.
And Mama had a grand old time using her imagination to explain conceptual art to us. So that’s alright.
Opening: Tuesday to Sunday – 10am to 7.30pm. Monday – CLOSED.
Admission: 450 rubles (about £6.50) for adults, 250 rubles (£3.50) for students, children under 7 are free.
NB: It’s slightly cheaper for Russians. The New Tretyakov Galley is the only place where Mama has ever been offered the cheaper price, unless she is hiding behind Papa and scowling. Doesn’t work when we are with her though. We refuse to speak Russian to Mama.
By Metro: Oktabrskaya (orange and brown lines) – turn right, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left down the other massive seven million lane highway. Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. The Gallery is opposite Gorky Park.
By other means: Actually, the trollybus route ‘Б’ stops right outside. This is a circular route, which takes you round the edges of the centre of Moscow and hits a fair number of metro stations on the way. It’s quite a fun way of getting to or from the Gallery.
Mama has been going to the Old Tretyakov Gallery about once a year so for about 15 years now. Last time we let her go on her own she took the (English. Other languages are available) audio guide tour. Five hours later she staggered back out of the building, and that was despite suffering a total failure of will when it came to the icon section. The tour is organised around you deciding which of the paintings to find out more about, and Mama, who really likes the gallery and everything in it, wanted to find out more about nearly all of them.
What you have in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, begun by a wealthy businessman (Tretyakov himself) and added to by the state when they acquired it on his death, is half of nearly all the famous paintings done by painters working in the Former Russian Empire (the other half are in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg).
This makes it a very interesting place to someone who likes a hefty dose of cultural history alongside her aesthetic appreciation (Mama).
Sometimes there are advantages to artists not being particularly famous outside their own country. Or, y’know, enforced nationalisation of aristocratic possessions.
Mind you, regarding the tour, Mama wonders if it might not be a good idea to give more casual visitors an indication of the absolute must sees for a shorter version, or provide an alternative more overview focused guide. But the descriptions are excellent, and you learn a lot about the individual pictures, the artist, and the cultural, political and sociological context surrounding them.
Mama was amused to note that not all of the paintings are described in glowing terms. The experts are not afraid to say when they consider that the painter has made a fist of depicting the lightnshadows, for example, and their critiques take in even some of the images which are, for the people of the Former Soviet Union, as familiar as the Sunflowers, The Hay Wain or the Mona Lisa are to someone like Mama.
My Excellent Big Brother and I are now resigned to viewing art with Mama, but to be fair, Mama has got better at showing us around. She is quite prepared to cover the whole building in less than an hour, makes sure we are well fed and have had a run around before we go in, takes pencils and paper in case we want to do some copying and shamelessly bribes us with a promised trip to MacDonald’s after we have finished.
As it turns out, you are not supposed to sit on the floor and sketch in the Old Tretyakov Gallery.
We discovered this when we tried to draw our favourite painting, the Three Bogatyrs. My Excellent Big Brother likes it because it is of three famous characters from Russian fairy tales, one of which Mama pretends he is named after. I like it because they are sitting on three magnificent horses. Plus, it’s huge, brightly-coloured and not at all depressing, which Mama discovered is not at all true about many of the other paintings she usually likes to linger over.
One in particular made my Excellent Big Brother cry. It’s the one where the soldiers of the Strelki Guard are waiting with their distraught families on Red Square to be executed, overlooked by a vengeful Peter the Great (on a horse!). The Strelki, as a unit, being the ones who brutally murdered his family when Peter was a boy.
Perhaps Mama should not have explained the background to that one.
She managed to restrain herself when it came to Ivan the Aptly-Named Terrible desperately cradling his son, after he had bludgeoned him to death in a rage and rushed us past it before we could ask, even though it is a painting she finds particularly powerful.
Mama also decided that some of her other favourite paintings, the bitingly satirical commentaries on contemporary society, might also require a rather sophisticated explanation, although she did point out the somewhat heartbreaking troika of three poor children employed in the freezing cold as water barrel movers. Mama feels we should occasionally appreciate our comfortable lifestyles more than we do, specially when we are pestering her for new toys.
Luckily the painter, Perov, seems to have sold out later and done a cheerful hunting scene. Be sure to press the button for the commentary on this one. It is magnificently scathing.
She also declined to comment on the fate of this young lady. I think she must be Ariel from the Little Mermaid, and we all know that turns out ok in the end. In the Disney version, mutters Mama, darkly. And it’s true that this girl does not have red hair (or much pink about her).
The Russians also seem to have gone to war a lot. Mama resigned herself to the inevitable and we spent time contemplating what the artists’ views about war were, whether they wanted to glorify the victory or highlight something else.
Mama herself seems to be broadly against war. She thinks that these paintings, by a man who was there for one, tell you everything you should know about it, then and now.
My Excellent Big Brother was more struck by the personal tragedy of this one. Or it might have been the vultures that caught his eye.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
There are a number of famous Russians in the gallery. The first set of rooms is full of paintings of people with very big grey hair and very big fancy clothes. Mama pointed out that at the time, there were no cameras and if you wanted a picture of yourself or your loved ones, you had to pay someone to spend hours bringing you to life on paper. She asked us who we thought got painted.
My Excellent Big Brother decided on kings and queens and so we looked for some of them in each room. And found them! Mama’s favourite painting is the one of Peter III where you can see the considerable difference between the sketch and the finished picture, which goes to show airbrushing is certainly not a new idea. Here is the cleaned up version. I shall leave the probably-more-accurate quick fire one to your imagination.
My Excellent Big Brother prefers the one of the benign elderly lady walking her dog in her dressing gown, which Mama says is almost certainly a through misreading of the piece given that this is an Empress called Catherine the Great, although also an interesting departure from the pomp and circumstance of previous portraits. My Excellent Big Brother doesn’t care. He just likes the dog.
I like the pretty woman with the froth of wispy hair. Mama says she’s not a princess, but I knew that already. Not enough pink.
After this we passed into a room with lots of paintings of ruins, none of which we were very interested in, although it did have a portrait of Pushkin, who is a poet. You can tell he is an important poet because they have a little rope barrier in front of the painting in case you try to throw yourself at it in an excess of artistic sensibility or something. Mama says I will doubtless be finding out more about just how important he is shortly, when I start learning large swathes of his rhymes off by heart, just like my Excellent Big Brother has already. I am looking forward to that, I can tell you!
Mama has recently managed to find a way to shoehorn Pushkin into my Excellent Big Brother’s English school homework. She is so proud.
Mama was a little disappointed to find that the section towards the end with the peasant girls swirling in bright red dresses was closed for refurbishment, but some of the pre-revolution impressionistic stuff was bright and jolly. Mama tried to get us to notice how the portraits here were so very very different in what they chose to highlight about their subjects from the ones that we’d seen at the beginning of the gallery, but my Excellent Big Brother was transfixed by the large pink naked woman lolling around on a sofa and wasn’t paying attention. Mama also wisely decided to give up on attempting to explain how the artists were painting light not things.
People are not the only thing to see at the Old Tretyakov Gallery, however. There are also a lot of religous themes, and surprisingly many of them are without trauma. Mama enjoys this very bright and busy one, which apparently took the artist 20 years to complete. It’s called Christ’s First Appearance to the People. We played hunt the Christ. My Excellent Big Brother, he of the two churches education, had no trouble picking Him out. But Mama thinks the fun of this painting is looking at the some of the many many preliminary drawings the artist did on the surrounding walls.
See how John the Baptist starts life as a woman! Watch as the artist experiments with getting just the right amount of skepticism into Thomas the Doubter’s expression! Thrill at the way the amazing curls of John the Beloved take shape!
Mama, who clearly can’t resist poking a sleeping bear where religion is concerned, also had us look at two less flattering paintings. This one is, as my Excellent Big Brother twigged, is of a controversy within the church. Must have been a hell of an issue. Mama says, yes, something to do with the number of fingers it is appropriate to cross yourselves with. She also says, make sure you listen to the description of this one. Apparently, the artist (Perov again) got the composition ALL WRONG (it’s possible the commentators have something against Perov).
They don’t have anything against Repin. Repin is one of the truly great painters represented in the gallery. Mama and Papa once watched an episode of a programme called the Antiques Roadshow where a Repin painting turned up, fresh from somebody’s attic. Mama and Papa a) spat their tea right across the room when the expert revealed the name and b) marvelled at the coolness of the owner, until they realised he had know idea who Repin was. A mistake. The painting was worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Quite why he is great is easy to see from the Ivan painting above and the one of the religious procession. Not only is every last person in the crowd exquisitely rendered and completely individual, but nobody will be saying the composition is a bit shaky or the satire a bit overdone. At first glance, it looks like an uncomplicated drawing of a cheerfully colourful parade, a happy occasion in the life of the small town. When you start looking more carefully, it’s the beautiful devout cripple you notice first. Only later do you realise that he has been marginalised by the rest of society, and that the mass of faces behind him are marred by expressions of pride, boredom, irritation or other unbecoming emotions.
If that’s a bit much, admire the painting of his daughter, the dragonfly. Looks a bit like me, huh?
We didn’t do the icons though. Mama likes icons, as they are all significance and very little artistic flourish, but they are right at the end of the show, and by that time we were showing signs of restiveness. You could probably come just for the icons if that is your bag, Mama thinks. There are a lot of them, they are very old, and some of them work miracles. Mama, unfortunately, has never yet had the energy to appreciate them properly after hauling herself round the rest of the gallery.
We did appreciate the animal interest available at the Old Tretyakov Gallery though! This is Shishkin, who is famous for painting trees, bears and bears hugging trees, although if Mama’s audio guide is correct, he contracted out the bears in his most famous picture.
Mama knew she’d spent too long hanging with the Russians when she started to feel fondly for the tourist tat knock offs on the Arbat rather than wondering who the hell the vendors think would by such insipid twaddle.
Of course, there’s a whole shop devoted to Thomas Kincaid in London.
Mama also realised she has developed alarmingly sentimental feelings for some of the great landscape paintings.
We, however, were not in the slightest bit interested, even in the ones with what Mama insists is a virtuoso performance in how to capture light without resorting to reducing everything to pixels. She says you should google Kuindzhi, or, better, visit Russia and the Old Tretyakov Gallery, because computer screens really don’t do him justice.
We preferred the Rooks Returning. Mama says it is a deeply meaningful meditation on the impact of their climate on the Russians and their though processes. We just admired the birds. My Excellent Big Brother even managed to copy it because we found this room empty of attendants before we got told off for sitting on the floor in front of our knights.
And then there was the picture of the fly (with some fruit). Mama wanted to discuss whey the artist has painted the fly, although I suspect my Excellent Big Brother thought the real question was why bother with the vegetation? We decided the fly might lend realism, or be a joke, or show how beautiful things can have their dark side, or just represent a moment when a fly landed on a pear an artist was painting. What do you think?
But of course the highlight was the big black horse prancing towards the viewer with a young lady elegantly sidesaddle on its back. I like her little sister too. Cute! Like me!
And in the shop in jigsaw form! Mama feels that the shop, like others at the tourist attractions of Moscow, misses too many opportunities to fleece the tourists. She thinks it focuses a little too much on large glossy art books. But she has found the odd one or two things she she likes here in the past, notably the mugs covered in signatures by famous artists and collections of postcards, and she certainly appreciated the puzzle on the plane back to London.
The gallery also sports a cafe, which we had a brief look into. It is neither wildly cheap nor ruinously expensive, and serves a decent selection of hot Russian classics and cake in comfortable attractive surroundings. She wished she could have been sure it was open before we went, because in the end we held Mama to our promised trip to the golden arches back near the Metro. Mama was unsuccessful once again to place her order for two happy meals and a fillet of fish without incident. It’s a basic tourist fail is not managing to order successfully in MacDonald’s and we are all thoroughly ashamed. I predict Mama is going to insist on us eating local next time.
If you do not have a date with fast food planned, Mama recommends turning left as you exit and walking down the pedestrianised street to the canal, where you will find many iron trees covered with heart shaped padlocks. This is one of the places where wedding parties come to celebrate their day, and you can kick back and watch a stream of beautifully dressed people take photos of each other, should you so wish.
Anyway. We found a lot to look at in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, and despite the ban on crayoning, the staff were welcoming and friendly to us small people. It’s a great place to go if you want to find out more about the Russia that existed before the revolution, and to delve a bit deeper into its history and culture.
Just don’t save the icon room until the end, if that’s what you are interested in. You’ll never make it.
And finally, here is another random painting Mama really likes, because there aren’t enough of them in this post already:
It is Mama’s understanding that all of these images are in the public domain by virtue of the originals being old. If she is wrong, she is very willing to amend this post.
Address: 10 Lavrushinsky Lane, Moscow, Russia 119017
Opening: Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday: 10am to 6pm. Thursday and Friday: 10am to 9pm. Monday: CLOSED.
Admission: Adults – 450 rubles, children – 250 rubles, children under 7 – free. It is slightly cheaper if you can pass yourselves off as Russian. Good luck with that.
By Metro: Tretyakovskaya metro station (orange and yellow lines). Once you are out, you’ll be turning left and following the signs (in English and Russian). The very distinctive Old Tretyakov Gallery building is across a road and right round a corner. Try not to end up leaving by the connected green line station exit of Novuskusnetskaya as it’ll be a bit of a trek back. But on the upside, you’ll get to enjoy the newly nearly pedestrianised Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa.
The Polytechnic Museum is Moscow’s premier science, engineering and technology museum.
It’s currently closed for a total refurbishment.
Luckily it has found a temporary home in one of the large pavilions in the exhibition park VDNKh. Mama heard was particularly chock full of interactive aspects. Clearly we had to check it out.
The pavilion is rocking a sort of ornate classical look, but once you get inside you are in a dim mysterious world of technological goodies gleaming in the spotlights of all the different ways artificial light can illuminate.
We first came to a stop in front of a large TV screen showing a life size image of a scientist pottering about his laboratory.
Then he started to talk to us! In Russian, but we were invited (in English) to hold our hands up, in which case he switches to English. I know this because Mama immediately did. The hologram goes on to give you a little overview of the section you are standing in, with options at the end for you to ask him to explain more about some of the individual exhibits.
And repeated for all of the different areas and themes. Mama enjoyed the stern Soviet era babushka physicist and the floaty cosmonaut but she was particularly impressed by the splendidly sneery rapper who introduced the display on genetic engineering, although the translation really doesn’t do him justice.
She was a bit dismayed thereafter though to find that the in depth explanatory labels, also helpfully provided in British English as well as Russian if you stab at the Union Jack in the corner of the screen, were a good few notches above her level of understanding of how physics works. And sadly this was not due to dodgy translations.
But Mama is soothed by the suspicion that the designers are being very clever and providing enhancements pitched at different levels of understanding or different levels of interest, rather than make every interactive dodad work for the under tens.
So as well as the labels for the serious enthusiast, the museum has comfy armchairs which murmur soothingly in your ear about inventions and inventors for the senior citizens, child-height tablets showing short visual cartoon clips explaining things to the next generation, and an array of frankly bonkers artistic interpretations of science for the humanities graduates.
Still, Mama thought the bit that worked best for her was the section on teraforming on Mars because she actually came away knowing more about the subject than she did when she started, and interestingly, this was arguably the most traditional of the displays, with a series of dioramas doing most of the work.
Or perhaps she was just most interested in this. Too much Heinlein in her formative years.
Which is not to say that she didn’t enjoy the modern art. The one with the bank of TV screens of performance artists interpreting science was hysterical if almost completely baffling, and we were all delighted by the installation which converted waterflow into binary digits for, as far as we could tell, no real reason whatsoever.
We also enjoyed lighting things up, making electricity spark, smearing our fingers all over the many many touchscreens, the experiment to make water spike into different shapes by the power of hand held or knob-twiddled magnets, and especially the place where we were all able to lay flat on some cushions and contemplate the universe swirling on the ceiling above us.
Mama’s main reservation is that some of the whiz bang squeeeeeeee completely overshadows the actual exhibits rather than enhancing our appreciation of them, although I think she is being a bit of a killjoy there. It would also have been nice if more of the buttons were actually working. Mama in particular was disappointed she didn’t get to launch a spaceship.
She thought the doors which invited us to guess what invention had been inspired by someone observing nature closely were particularly good value, though, being comprehensible, touchy feely and, specially for my Amazing Big Brother, involving copious animal interest.
The actual name of the whole exhibition is ‘Russia did it herself’ which is both disconcertingly flag wavy and also oddly defensive, Mama says. This might be because, as most of the actual stuff is from upwards of 40 years ago, you do get the impression that Russia’s glory age of scientific exploration is somewhat in the past.
But then, what glory days they were!
Clearly the pinnacle is the TV with the water filled goldfish aquarium as a standard attachment. Papa says his Papa used to have one of these at work. Once again I am persuaded that this Soviet Union must have been a paradise. How great must that have been?
Mama’s highlight was the simulation of a nuclear bomb exploding. Now, some people might feel that this is a monumentally tasteless bit of button pushing fun, and Mama admits that there is some merit in this although, she also points out, the Russians have never actually used a nuclear explosion to incinerate thousands and condemn survivors to a particularly nasty lingering death, unlike some people.
Perhaps you should assume that what the designers are trying to do is instill awe in the visitor at the sheer scale of the power involved. And if you do, then by means of clever white out lighting, a super strong blast from some hidden fans, and a truly impressive noise which is not only loud but so low it vibrates right through you it really does the job.
If it helps, you have actually ask for the exhibit to be turned on. It gets a bit much otherwise, the docent said, and lessens the impact.
Guess who did the asking in our party?
It’s not that the museum ignores the destructive uses of this invention. Visitors are invited to reflect on what happens when science is harnesssed for evil purposes while adding to an ever-growing mobile composed of origami doves. Not sure it entirely makes up for it though. Mama clearly was more interested the BIG BADDA BOOM than contemplating the horror, and, again, it is perhaps a tad sophisticated for us kids, especially my Amazing Big Brother, who has the paper folding skills of a jellyfish.
Basically, if the aim is to make people generally excited about how utterly cool science, engineering and technology can be, Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum scores a resounding win. And Mama thinks it’s pretty exciting that given a temporary space to play with, the Polytechnic Museum has decided to have fun and accelerate right out beyond the edge of what an established museum might attempt with its displays.
So as a teaser for the eventual reopening of the main building it is very successful. She will certainly have us first in the queue to find out. And we will be bouncing up and down beside her.
Aaaaaaaaaaah. That’s the sound of Mama relaxing as she steps onto a Moscow riverboat run by CCK (Столичная Судоходная Компания or Capital Riverboat Tour Company), finding a seat with a good view and preparing to drift along, carried, at a suitably sedate pace, effortlessly past sights of historic and aesthetic importance for over an hour.
Or at least that’s how it was before she had kids. Before she had kids, Mama did these cruises down the Moscow River on a regular-ish basis, at first romantically with my not-yet Papa, and then at least as often as friends and family from back in the UK visited her. But she’d never tried it with children before last summer. Passive sitting and taking calm enjoyment in our surroundings didn’t strike her as really us. Also, you may have noticed that she has this thing about my Wonderful Big Brother, me and water.
Still, Mama also believes that the summer holidays are a long time to spend without regular bouts of organised fun, and also that getting out and about makes everybody appreciate some down time the next day. Plus, it’s hot in Moscow in the summer. River breezes are always welcome. So she decided to give it a whirl.
And in fact, when we actually got on the board we discovered that the particular boat she had flagged down had had the bow end downstairs converted into a children’s play area with various craft opportunities, toys, a wendy house, a trampoline and best of all, a dedicated staff member employed to play with the children while she kicked back and ignored the mayhem that ensued, and we ignored the fact we were on a boat at all.
These special child-friendly boats set off from piers near Novospaskii Bridge at 11.40am and 3.30pm and Kievskii Railway and Metro Station at 1.40pm and 5.30pm each day. The ordinary cruises run every twenty minutes from the same places and they all have a number of other stopping points on the way, notably ones in Gorky Park. You can get on wherever you like and do the one way trip all in one go, which is a flat rate and costs the same wherever you embark. Or you can buy (more expensive) tickets which allow you to hop on and off all day. There is also a round trip option from the Kievskii Station pier.
Tickets are easy to get hold of, being sold at the kiosks attached to each landing station. Most people seem to prefer getting on at Kievskaya, saving the excitements of the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square for towards the end. Mama, of course, usually does it the other way. Well, it’s quieter, and has she mentioned she used to work in a building overlooking Red Square and the south-east corner of the Kremlin yet? Sometimes she forgets that that’s the best bit for everybody else.
Having abandoned the small people, you can hang out in the small cafe on board but the place you really want to be is on the more open top deck, hanging over the sides, taking photographs. There isn’t any commentary, so read on for what Mama thinks are the highlights to look out for. Assuming you start more or less where she does.
The main attraction at the start of the route is the Novospasskii Monastery. Founded in the early 14th Century it one of the oldest religious institutions in Moscow, and has strong ties to the Romanov dysnasty. You can visit it and enjoy the contrast between the busy city and the tranquility here before or (if you insist on doing the tour the wrong way round) after your cruise. Or you can just sail past and photograph the traditionally white walls, the onion domes and the wedding-cake-inspiration bell tower.
Those big empire state buidingesque blocks you may already have seen elsewhere around the capital? Those are the Stalin Skyscrapers. There are seven in all. They are called the seven sisters, because, why not? One is part of the University and you’ll see that later, one is the foreign ministry, but the one you’ll encounter first on the river is an apartment block. Nice, huh? Cameras out!
Soon after that and just before Red Square, you’ll pass by the a large pile of rubble that was the former excessively ugly Rossiya hotel. Legend has it that it got to be such an eyesore because someone offered Stalin the choice of plans and he scrawled his signature so it went over two of them. Nobody then had the balls to ask him which he’d meant so… Personally, Mama just thinks it was the victim of architecture. She thinks it’s probably a good thing it has gone, but that really depends what they replace it with. You can take a picture of it if you do the tour when something has gone up and it is interesting.
Then it’s St Basil’s and Red Square, the back of. It looks even gaudier in winter, Mama tells me, which I imagine is quite a feat. It’s pretty colourful now.
And next to that it’s the Kremlin. From this side you can see right over what elsewhere are large imposing red walls to the palaces and cathedrals beyond, a view which is only available from the south bank or the river itself. Enjoy it. Photograph it.
The Christ the Saviour Cathedral is the large white Orthodox building with the very large golden onion domes coming up right after that. It’s a copy. The original was knocked down to make way for a HUGE monument to the ever-popular Revolution. However, it never got built because it turns out that HUGE monuments to Revolution are too heavy for the somewhat soggy banks of the Moscow River. So naturally it became an outdoor swimming pool instead. Papa used to go. He says it was quite chilly in winter. Quite why they decided to get rid of such an excellent sort of facility and rebuild the church again is rather lost on me, but they did. Mama says it’s a statement. It is certainly very photogenic. And popular with all female punk rock bands I’m told.
On the other side is a very grey building in what you will clearly recognise is the Constructivist style of architecture. This is an apartment block known as the House on the Embankment. It was built as a sort of especially fabulous communist living space for the Soviet elite of the 1930s, but it is famous, Mama carefully does NOT tell me, for how many of those people were disappeared in the Stalinist purges later on, with over half of the five hundred apartments left deserted following the arrest of their residents.
More cheerfully, a bit further on is the former Red October chocolate factory, although it has now been closed down. This is a shame. Not only did the smell of cooking chocolate add a pleasant something to the atmosphere, Mama says, but she liked to go and spend lots money at the factory shop whenever she had an excuse. Still, you can still buy the brand in the shops (do, in fact) and the building is still there and it’s very red. Mama likes to have a picture of twenty of it, but your mileage may vary.
By now you should be able to see a large statue of a man steering an oddly truncated old fashioned ship into the horizon, waving a gold scroll around his head. Sometimes there are fountains spurting all around. That’s Peter the Great, ruler of Russia some time previously. Bit of a naval enthusiast I understand, although it’s odd that Moscow wanted the world’s eighth biggest statue to be of him given how much he hated the place, according to Mama. There is what Mama says is a probably apocryphal rumour that the artist only flogged it to Moscow when it was rejected as a commemoration of Christopher Columbus elsewhere, not that it stops her repeating it. Still, the river is one of the few places you can actually get a decent view, so snap away while you can.
The big boxy building next to there statue is, in part, the New Tretyakov Art Gallery. You will not want to photograph it but do consider visiting. Mama is a huge fan. Surrounding it is a parkette called Museon which you may be able to see contains many many statues. Half of them are fallen Soviet icons, originally dumped here after people revenged theselves for the previous 70 years on the inanimate features of key Communist figures, and the rest are not. It is, apparently, becoming a trendy hangout place.
Then it’s Gorky Park, which some of you may remember from old Cold War thrillers. Mama says. Recently it has been extensively remodelled and is also hugely popular. Observe the large number of people promenading along the embankment. At some point you will go under a rather fabulous looking bridge, which may well have people sitting on the very top of it. This just goes to show you really are in Russia, where nobody every accused anyone of pandering to the anti Health and Safety gone mad movement.
Then it’s more of Gorky Park. And still yet more. And it goes on. And on. And turns into the extensive wooded area they call the Sparrow Hills for reasons which now escape Mama. And basically it’s trees nearly all the way to Kievskaya after that. Look out for the University rising gothically above the leaves, and also the modern skyscrapers of some business park or another that has been built after Mama’s time, and people bathing in the Moscow River from the urban beaches. On your right, at some point you will see a stadium. Mama assumes some people might be mildly interested in the information that it is going to be one of the 2018 World Cup stadiums. Lots of photography options to pick from.
For kids, when you finally look up from the toys and realise you are on a moving water-borne vehicle, which happened to us around the time we got to the endless tree section, there is a lot of fun to be had in scrambing around the different deck levels, going and hanging off the back of the boat watching the water churn, admiring the bucket and mop art installations and begging biscuits off the other tourists. People think we are charming. Mama is often surprised by this.
Anyway, eventually, you will get to the end of the route, at a pier just beyond the Crystal Bridge at Kievskaya Railway Station. It will have taken you around an hour and a half if you did the full route with the CCK riverboats. As you can imagine, other river tours are available, notably one which does a circular route from Gorky Park run by the Raddison Hotel group. Mama suspects that it might be a more luxurious experience, but she holds fast to the one she is used to especially as the Raddison one does not, as far as she is aware, have special facilities for kids.
But however you choose to cruise, she highly recommends that if you are a tourist in Moscow you take a trip down the river.
Times: Novospasskii Bridge: 11am to 7.50pm. Kievskii Station: 11.30am to 9pm at 20 minute intervals. The trip takes about 1.5 hours.
The child-friendly boats set of from Novospaskii Bridge at 11.40am and 3.30pm and Kievskaya Railway and Metro Station at 1.40pm and 5.30pm.
Prices: The one way tour costs 600 roubles for adults and 400 roubles for children over 6. The hop on hop off version costs 1000 roubles for adults and 700 roubles for children. The round trips are 700 roubles for adults and 500 rubles for children. There are also family tickets.
By Metro: For Novospasskii Bridge use Proletarskaya (purple line) or Krestyanskaya Zastava (light green line) – both basically the same station. For Kievskii Station use Kievskaya (brown, light blue and dark blue lines).
Mama thinks that a trip to the Moscow Kremlin with small children is more of an endurance tourism experience than an actually enjoyable outing for the whole family, although she concedes that other people might find it more interesting than she does after the number of visits she has paid to it over the years.
Certainly it seems to surprise people. There are trees inside, and flowers, and most of the buildings are built in a distinctly classical mould as well as being quite colourful. And the main focus of a trip there is a square surrounded by a number of cathedrals, used by Russia’s Tsars for, variously, coronations, weddings, their tombs and personal worship. But to start with, there will be a massive queue to buy tickets although it might have helped a bit if Mama and Papa hadn’t turned up just before the ticket offices had a (scheduled) twenty-minute ‘technical break’ around lunchtime.
It’s good, then, that there is the whole of Alexandrovskii Sad, the park running along one side of the Kremlin wall, to hang out in while you wait. There are plenty of benches to sit on, trees and the flowerbeds for the kids to play hide and seek round, and you can even venture along to the fountain area in summer if you don’t mind your smalls getting thoroughly soaked while they dance around in the spray from the one with the horses with every other Russian under the age of fifteen.
Mama does a bit, although it is worth pointing out that Moscow in the summer can be blisteringly hot, so sometimes this is a bit of a godsend.
More soberly, you can have a look at the tomb of the unknown soldier and the eternal flame, commemorating those who fell in World War Two, called, in Russia, the Great Patriotic War, which gives you an idea of just how big a deal this is.
With 27 million dead, there is a lot of commemorating to do and so if you are still waiting for your tickets on the hour, this is where the Russian equivalent of the changing the guard takes place, every hour. Miss this and there is a good chance you might see instead a wedding party coming to lay flowers. Basically, Mama’s advice is to take mobiles and wander off while someone else stands in the queue. There’s plenty to keep the youngsters occupied with. Except the problem is that all this waiting around made me well well overdue for my nap, but all the excitement meant I refused to even contemplate it once we got inside. I therefore had a truly epic meltdown on the main square inside the Kremlin, the one flanked by the four cathedrals.
Tourists were taking photos and everything, I was that impressively cross.
Which led to Mama and Papa getting told off by a plain clothes secret serviceman. Lying on the ground, screaming and drumming your heels brings the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute. Apparently. Trying to tour the cathedrals with two five-and-unders will also make Mama appreciate the value of the National Trust’s strategies for dealing with restless children. It’s amazing how much more attractive the idea of playing ‘hunt the small stuffed animals the curators have placed in blindingly obvious hiding places round the historical monument’ becomes when the alternative is listening to Papa tell the story of the boy-Tsar who committed suicide by throwing himself off the Kremlin walls. Look! Here is his tomb!
Cue another incipient meltdown. Mama retreated briskly from any attempt to admire the icons and plied me with sweets before we got more than a hard stare from one of the attendants.
Of course, Papa will eventually get told off again anyway for bringing the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute by sitting on the grass with two untidy looking children next to the toilets in full view of the official presidential offices while waiting for Mama to have a wee.
Mama, mark you, felt that the toilets in the Kremlin brought the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute. Someone at some point decided to install the latest in toilet technology, consisting of eight stalls of supposedly automatic self-cleaning cubicles. Look no hands! You don’t even have to flush the loo yourself.
Unfortunately, Mama reported that given the amount of piss swilling around on the floor and the number of attendants needed to manually override the automated mechanism allowing the next punter in, this wonderful system doesn’t work very well.
And there is another big queue.
Naturally there also isn’t a hint of a baby changing area, so it is probably a good thing that the secret serviceman arrived to chide Papa after I had brought the whole of the Russian Federation into disrepute by mooning the government while having my nappy changed outside.
My Super Big Brother and I did like the formal gardens, where you can get one of Moscow’s excellent ice creams (but no other kind of refreshment) and wander around looking for insects on the trees and admiring the view of the Moscow River and the presidential helicopter pad.
Mama says she used to work in one of the buildings in the background of this picture, but Mama says that about a lot of buildings in Moscow, usually with a misty look in her eye. I am sceptical. She certainly doesn’t seem to do very much with her days apart from follow me around and wash clothes. What could she have been up to?
Oh! And wait until you try to cross the (empty) roads inside without using the somewhat arbitrarily situated zebra crossings. The whistle blast from one of the nearby guards is quite something.
Mama says it is totally worth hanging around and watching tourists jump out of their skin and look around wildly again and again and again. She says putting a sign up to explain what you are supposed to do would spoil everybody’s fun, and I have to say I agree.
We also quite enjoyed the large bell and huge cannon on display near the main square although it turns out you are not allowed to climb on them.
You can scramble over the ones by the entrance though, so we did quite a bit of that while Mama admired the huge building opposite, the only one that Mama says actually looks like it belongs in the control centre of the Former Soviet Union. Mama says that actually what it is mostly for is watching ballet. She says it’s quite good. Ballet! Like Angelina Ballerina does! The dresses! The twirls! The Soviet Union must have been a fun place to live. Oh! Mama has just spat some of her coffee out. Hang on. She appears to be choking… However, on balance, the Moscow Kremlin is one of the least toddler friendly places on the planet. Mama says. She does not recommend it for (those with) small children at all and she doesn’t think that going to see the bits we missed (you have to pay extra), the Armoury, where they keep the crown jewels and such, would improve matters either, although I think she may be wrong about this. It sounds exceedingly shiny.
Russians take their circus very seriously. If you watch the Russia’s Got Talent (which is actually called Fifteen Minutes of Fame, and once had someone called Mikhail Gorbachov as a judge. I could care less but Mama thought this was hysterical, so I assume he must have been a particularly dishy celebrity or something back in Mama’s day) you will very soon notice that by far the largest category of performers are doing some kind of circus act. Mama thinks they are very good too, but then Mama’s idea of amateur circus is people throwing wobbly juggling balls about and, generally, missing. University does sound fun.
Whatever the reason, Moscow has not one but two large permanent circus buildings and we went to the Old Circus on Tsvetnoy Boulevard, also known as the Nikulin Circus after one of its most famous clowns/ directors when we were in town this past summer.
A lot of what we saw was the sort of modern take on acrobatics popularised by the Cirque du Soleil. Mama tells me. Trapeze artists who swing upside down low over the audience; people dangling from long swatches of material; people wrapping themselves up in long swatches of material and then unwinding with a flourish; people wrapping themselves up in long swatches of material and unwinding themselves with a flourish while swinging upside down low over the audience; people wrapping other people up and down in long swatches of material while they all swing upside down low over the audience with their legs at an impossible angle. That sort of thing. Also, large men tossing a couple of tiny girls from one metal bar to another and a couple of lads performing tricks at the top of ladders. Very exciting, especially when one of them fell off. If it doesn’t go wrong occasionally, Mama says, you don’t know how difficult it is. Having seen the spill, I suspect that it was all very difficult indeed.
Mama also thinks the high wire act, half of which was done without a net or wires was pretty thrilling, especially as the performance area is well-designed to be both spacious and intimate and even from the cheap seats you get a really good view of the slight twitch of concern that crosses the burly walker’s face as he slides across the wire carrying five of his family and somebody wobbles.
I missed that bit. I was asleep. I also missed the set up, done in the interval, which was almost as much fun as the act itself (apparently). A couple of men swarming easily up and down ropes to secure the fastenings and bouncing casually up and down on the wire itself to test its strength. Splendid. Mama says. She was quite pleased to be stuck under a snoring child while the others queued for the toilet.
Not that my falling asleep was a reflection on my enjoyment – I was jet lagged and put off the snooze as long as I could. Mama was initially a bit dubious about taking me to a show. She does not have good memories of taking my Glorious Big Brother to places where he needed to sit down quietly for extended periods of time before he was about three. However, since both Papa and Babushka were also going she reasoned that the adults could work in shifts to walk me up and down the corridor while the rest of our party were enjoying the turns. This turned out to be unnecessary. Despite the fact that the show was very very long, while I was awake I was entirely rapt. As were the others. None of us noticed the time until we were out at the end.
Mama even enjoyed the clowns, which is not a sentence she thought she’d be typing ever. They made considerable reference to the traditional clowning elements of mime, pratfalls, squirting the audience with water, much business with unicycles and very big shoes, but much updated and very slick. Mama actually cried with laughter during the mass clapalong section, choreographed by the head clown, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
That said, it’s worth mentioning that a circus in Russia is not the place to go if you have scruples about performing animals.
Now it would be a mistake, Mama thinks, to assume that all circus animals are mistreated simply by virtue of being in a circus, especially in one of the foremost professional performance spaces in Russia.
And generally they stick to the sorts of trainable animals that work for their keep all over the world.
So the bird act was fun, but similar to the ones we’ve seen in high minded conservation projects in the UK, although generally the trainers there are not dressed as pirates; the bareback riders were impressive but slight compared to their extremely sturdy shire-esque mounts; Mama is reasonably sure it’s easier to get dogs to jump over things, even other dogs, than sing; the horses going through dressage moves without actually being in physical contact with their trainer were beautiful, but we watched the same thing in Hyde Park just this week, albeit without the music and the shiny harnesses.
But there were elephants too. Elephants carrying people. And an elephant standing on a ball, a genuinely awesome moment. Mama would like to extend the trainers a bit of trust regarding that trick although that might be because secretly, Mama was thrilled to bits with the steampunk Jules Verne theme to the finale, even if the costume changes fro the dancers got a bit dizzying after a while. Your mileage may well vary.
However, when Mama walked into the spacious (and very Soviet) reception area (all gleaming marble floors and fancy chandeliers overlaying what would otherwise be a very functional sort of layout) she was shocked to see the tiger waiting quietly have its photo taken with the kids. Also, the bear, the elephant, the leopard, the kangaroo, the toucan and the monkeys. Mama consoles herself with the thought that the circus’s schedule is not demanding even in the high season, but thinks that if you are going to boycott the circus over the animal issue, then this should be your reason why.
Depending on your decision, by and large the Nikulin Circus is one of the places to take the under tens in Moscow. And the over tens. You don’t even have to spend a fortune. The performers do project the best bits towards the high paying punters at the ‘front’. But because it is, after all, a circus and so the performance space is in the round and since all the artists, human and animal, spend quite a bit of the time racing, swinging or flying around the circle, Mama does not plan to be spending any more money next time we go. Look out for ticket selling kiosks all around town for the better deals.
And believe me, if I have anything to say about it, we will be going again.