2nd Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art and Beauty

As we approach the first year anniversary of the pandemic quarantine it’s a given that there are many big things to mourn. And we do. And we should.

It’s also true that it’s been hard to have slide past unmarked or unattended all the little pleasurable events with which we usually mark the year.

I mean, yes, you can have a lockdown stay at home Zoom party birthday, and actually quite fun those are too, but if you always spend some of June in a muddy field in Glastonbury, it’s a wrench to have to seen that week go by and only have the comfort of the music festival’s greatest hits on TV.

A guilty wrench, maybe, because of all the more important things to be upset about, but a wrench nevertheless.

One of the things Mama was really looking forward to for 2020 was the 2nd Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art. Given that she had had to wait three years since the last one for it, I think she can be forgiven a slight internal scream of frustration when it was cancelled last summer.

Perhaps you can also understand why she did a little jig of joy when it was rescheduled for the autumn.

But events conspired against her, and Mama did not make it to the Garage Triennial in the autumn.

Then another lockdown happened.

And to cut a long story short, here we are finally writing about the 2nd Triennial quite shortly before it closes again at the end of February.

Three masks

This is probably a good thing, mind you. The only exhibition Mama has ever visited and managed to write up promptly was the one that closed abruptly about two minutes later because of covid. Mama thinks she may have jinxed it.

Anyway. You may remember that the idea of the Garage Triennial is to showcase modern art from all over the large territory that is the Russian Federation. The way they ensured a diverse range of participants this time was to ask last time’s exhibitor’s to choose who to include.

Handmade rug portrait of a man from the Caucuses, with a TV showing a film of the rug being made

Thus each exhibit gives the relationship between the artist and their recommender. These have been explained by the artists themselves, and inevitably if you know anything about Russians, there are some quite entertaining labels such as ‘guru – sect member’ or ‘Siberian past – handing ladders and recreation therapy’ or ‘landmark – satellite’ or ‘accomplice’ or (Mama’s personal favourite) ‘<~#*^//:+=>#:_ _ _ #~<||’.

The 2nd Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art, not content with an already long title is also called ‘A Beautiful Night for All the People’, which I, for one pre-teen girl, do not agree with.

The exhibition was not full of beautiful things; it was full of weird things.

A tire which has been turned into a sculpture of a parrot at the 2nd Garage Triennial

Chief of those in my loudly voiced opinion was the canvases of gopniks. I do not consider gopniks (Slavic chavs, for those of you in the UK, but with more Adidas tracksuits and squatting) a suitable subject for art. Mama just wants to know where I have heard about them in the first place, and is contemplating, once again, limiting my access to YouTube.

Gopniks squatting at the 2nd Garage Triennial

Luckily, the notes to the 2nd Garage Triennial say that the title is not the theme. It is taken from a book by a Russian mathematician, which was written in ‘a special process-based language’ using no symbols, allowing for many readings without a definite plot.

A much better description of the overall idea in fact.

Thus I was also inclined to be severe about the communication skills of the talking bushes, which my Bemused Big Brother and I both tried to have lengthy and quite nonsensical conversations with, without much success. Can’t think why not.

A plant with a microphone angled towards it

And Mama rather boggled at the story behind this piece which includes the artist getting thrown out of their job, making gravestone art, for subversive behaviour. Punk’s Not Dead and all that, but it’s a commitment to the idea Mama actively found herself blinking at. I suspect she, too, is showing her (increasingly stodgy) age.

Plaques in the style of gravestone plaques at the 2nd Garage Triennial

We did rather like the captioned toy dioramas, mainly because we are, after all, children of the meme generation, and also because some of them were quite funny. Although it was Mama who grinned at this one, which says ‘another angel has fallen from heaven’. She says she’s thinking of a pickup line, but that leaves me none the wiser.

Three lego figures stand around a dad plastic angel next to a toy ambulance

Mama and I quite disagree about this room. She thinks that it is strikingly attractive, whereas it gave me vertigio.

A dark room with back and white paintings of white splodges and a pile of ashes on the floor

Mama also spent actual minutes in front of this piece telling us about lace making and how it is a specialty of the place where our ancestral village is. Which would have been more uplifting if out of the corner of our eye we couldn’t see the accompanying video with the headdresses, masks for what are apparently Russian aliens, in action.

Three traditional carved wooden window frames with busts of women in traditional Russian costumes made of lace at the 2nd Garage Triennial

But we were delighted to find coffee machines for Mama.

Not really a coffee machine but it looks like one

And all of us really enjoyed the waiting room. You choose from a list of things to anticipate, enter the booth and experience hanging around for things like 12 midnight on NYE, with the image of a clock ticking back and forth a few seconds before the big moment, with the very beginning of the chime sound on loop. Or the end of Russia, which contrary to our apprehension, was footage from inside a train carriage carrying you towards, presumably, the border going on and on and on and on on and on and on and on. Mama actually snorted with appreciative laughter over that one. Russia is, after all, very very very big.

There were also some hands on exhibits, which are always welcome, and the jump scare we got when we turned round and found the docent in the corner of a blacked out tent with us was real and exciting, if an entirely unintended part of the installation, which was about spinning things.

I did approve of the name of this one, which is ‘Battle Cats’.

Sculptures with big curling claws

Although quite why we spent ten minutes each having our aura mapped I do not know as what we found was that while mine is round, Mama’s and my Bemused Big Brother’s are somewhat squiggly. But it did allow Mama to tell the story (again) of how she got assessed for psychic ability in the Tate Modern once.

Perhaps, all unsuspectingly, the Garage Triennial has managed to capture the basic ludicrousness of the last year and us all having our normal routines and comfort upended. Certainly a point made by the piece called ‘a portrait of my Babushka’, which is in fact an illustrated story of some of the more memorable moments from her life.

A life which was not, as you can imagine, all joy. Yet, here is one of the pictures.

A blue pig with an orange sewing machine on its back

And in the end you take your enjoyment where you can find it. For us, since Mama was so pleased to be out of the house, we were delighted to be treated to lunch in the Garage cafe (we recommend the soups, the hummus and the chicken cutlets) AND a trip to Burger King later in the day.

Plus the location of the Garage Art Gallery, Gorky Park, is quite delightful in the snow, and well worth a gallop round after you have been culturally satiated.

If you have the opportunity to trundle down to the 2nd Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art (A Beautiful Night for All the People) before it closes at the end of February, you will find it wildly inventive, quite bonkers in places, probably not pretty, and definitely not disappointing.

If you cannot attend this year’s, make plans for the next one, in 2023. Mama has certainly already pencilled it in.

More information

The 2nd Garage Triennial’s page on Garage’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Angels and the classification thereof.

Address: 9/32 Krymsky Val, 119049, Moscow

Opening: The 2nd Garage Triennial of Contemporary Russian Art is on until 28th February 2021. 11 am to 10pm daily.

Admission: 500 roubles for adults. Children under 11 are free. Children over 11 cost 150 roubles. Currently, you need to buy tickets in advance for timed slots.

Public transport: The Garage gallery is in Gorky Park. The two nearest metro stations are Oktyabrskaya (brown and orange lines) and Park Kultury (brown and red lines).

The Last Bogatyr 2, Root of Evil is…?

I’m sure you have been waiting for baited breath – as Mama has – for the second instalment of the Russian made Disney fairytale Last Bogatyr (slash Knight, slash Hero, slash Warrior) vaguely promised at the end of the first film.

But that came out back in 2017 and Mama had almost lost hope when an idle google came across the info it would be out within the year.

[Pause for the global pandemic]

After one failed attempt to get into a screening with a much reduced cinema capacity, Mama and the somewhat less enthusiastic rest of the family (there’s also a cartoon about a horse out) settled down in a darkened room OUTSIDE OF OUR OWN FOUR WALLS and watched the Last Bogatyr 2 (slash Knight, slash Hero, slash Warrior), Root of Evil.

Ivan (Viktor Khorinyak), the reluctant hero from the real world, returns, and has somewhat uneasily settled down to fairytale living, only sneaking back to the civilization of Moscow, ooooh, once a day for a hot bath and some proper coffee, a practice which surely many Russians with a datcha can relate.

In fact, almost every single character from the first film is squeezed into this one. Given that the film makers have also added new arrivals on top of that, this means that some people are rather pushed for meaningful screen time, or any real point to their being there at all aside from a name check and perhaps one good moment each. Vasilysa (Mila Sivatskaya), for example, who was one of Ivan’s main travelling companions and the muscle for the group for the first film really doesn’t have much to do apart from continue to be Ivan’s love interest this time, despite her presence on the inevitable quest.

Koshchei (Konstantin Lavronenko), who of course returns, he’s Deathless,  and Baba Yaga (Elena Yakovleva) are rather upstaged in the grumpy comic side kick role by Kolabok (Garik Kharlamov), a hooligan bread roll (yes really), whose back story Mama once actually learned off by heart in Russian the better to torture our early years with (‘…and then the fox ate him’). Not easily done.

There’s also not one, not two, but three villains this time round, although they have managed to fit a bit of moral tension into this situation, plotwise, which means Mama will allow it. That said, annoyingly, this time Mama did guess the plot twist related to Galina (Elena Valyushkina) and her excellently coiffed daughter (Ekaterina Vilkova). The ROOT of EVIL, geddit? Well, you will.

Two ominous women stand looking determined in the film the Last Bogatyr 2 Root of Evil

Aside from the minor issues of overstuffing the cast list, there are plenty of jokes; Ivan is both endearingly caddish and what he lacks in true heroic ability, he makes up for in what is surely a very timely reminder of the value of acceptance of the full range of the weird and wonderful in Belogorie; the fight scenes are fast and furious; there are some genuine pang-inducing moments of sadness at opportunities lost; the scene with the riddle is just perfect; and the writers have continued to be inventive about how they adapt what we know (or in Mama’s case, mostly don’t know) about Russian folklore, children’s stories and fairytales.

And at least the sheer number of people on screen includes plenty of women, some of whom are still not young.

Baba Yaga, looking fabulous in front of the hut on chicken legs in the film the Last Bogatyr 2 Root of Evil

Which makes up (a bit) for the mess the story makes of trying to square the fact that all the most effective characters are women with the fact that only men seem eligible for heroic status and that only a pissing contest with the splendidly irritating Finist the Falcon (Kirill Zaitsev) can spur Ivan to get off the metaphorical oven and prove himself.

Not that that goes very well for Ivan, mark you. Ah well, perhaps that’s the point.

On the upside, there’s a bonus whale.

Plus this time the Last Bogatyr 2 (slash Knight, slash Hero, slash Warrior), Root of Evil was sponsored not by the Southern Russia Tourism Board, but the Northern one. Who does not like lovingly-filmed shots of snow-covered landscape?

So all in all, if you were in any way entertained by (the idea of) The Last Bogatyr (slash Knight, slash Hero, slash Warrior) you should definitely entertain the thought of seeing The Last Bogatyr Root of Evil.

And luckily for Mama’s impatience levels, they seem to have cracked straight on this time with the next instalment, which intriguingly seems to be set in real life Moscow itself.

Stay tuned. And in the meantime, watch the trailer for the Last Bogatyr 2, Root of Evil (with English subtitles).

Photocredit: Mama has shamelessly used a couple of interesting pictures she found lying around on the internet to promote this Disney film, a service for which she is not receiving any form of compensation whatsoever. However, if she should not be using these pictures, she is very willing to take them down.

More information

Our other Russian film reviews:

The Last Bogatyr

Viy 2: Journey to China

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Zen and the Art of Making Baguettes.

Follow your nose at the Gogol House Museum

One of the first Russian jokes Mama learned goes like this:

Once, a man was walking through a forest and he came across a pond and in the pond was a frog. ‘O frog!’ said the man, ‘Why are you so green, slimy and horrible?’ And the frog said, ‘Well, actually, normally I am white, fluffy and kind, but right now I’m sick.’

Not really believing that this was all that funny, every now and again over the years she has told it to a Russian. Inevitably they smirk, which just goes to show that while the rest of the world thinks that Russian humour is a best cold and black and at worst non-existent, in fact what it is, is surrealist.

(Or, possibly, just not very tolerant of stupid questions).

Which brings us to Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, who is known, somewhat inexplicably to Mama and she gathers to Gogol himself, as the founder of a movement of literary realism in the Russian language.

A famously gloomy sculpture of Nikolai Gogol, who sits enshrouded by a cape

Not because he was actually born in and grew up in Ukraine, although that is true too.

One of Gogol’s celebrated short stories is about a man who wakes up to find that his nose has gone off and is basically living its best life all over St Petersburg, independent of its former host. His first big successes, a collection of short stories mixing folklore with details of rural Ukrainian life, Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, includes the horror story Viy, about a seminarian’s encounter with a witch and her hellish entourage over three nights in an abandoned church. A theme that was not unusual in the book. It’s not obviously the fodder for a bard of the boring.

Even his satire was fairly broad. Mama was delighted by some of the quips when she started reading Dead Souls recently. In which, at the risk of giving away the plot twist for you, look away now if you really do not want to know, SPOILERS, a corrupt bureaucrat is taking advantage of the fact that at one time you could use your serfs as collateral to raise a mortgage. Something which Mama thinks might have been much more blindingly obvious to a contemporary reader a lot earlier, and was certainly obvious to Alexander Pushkin (the greatest poet who evah lived), who gave Gogol the idea. Mama, on the other hand, felt that Dead Souls really span out the big reveal quite considerably.

She found lines such as this amusing:

‘Every conceivable subject was discussed, including politics and military affairs; and in this connection guests voiced jejune opinions for the expression of which they would, at any other time, have soundly spanked their offspring’

But Gogol pokes fun at Russian society more in his creation of somewhat repulsive caricatures than the witty comments he makes about them. No-one is spared in Dead Souls, not even the horses. It’s not real life, it’s larger than life. It’s also pretty horrific in places. You can see why people were quite surprised that Tsar Nicholas I was a fan of another work lampooning bureaucratic shenanigans, The Government Inspector. It’s not complimentary.

The thing is, though, that what Gogol is also really good at is descriptions, squeezed in around what Mama is generously going to call the action. The countryside. The houses. The clothes. Little day to day details. Mama found herself wildly distracted at one point by Gogol talking about a road made of wood, which the hero was not enjoying being bumped along. The courtyard of the old lady. The weather. The food. The fleas. And so on.

Now there, that’s the poetry of the mundane. In fact, Mama was rather sad Gogol didn’t just go all out for straight-faced word painting. You can taste the dust. Sort of thing.

And THAT brings us to the Gogol House Museum, which our little museum going collective went to in happier museum going times last year.

It’s not so much the dust you can taste going round, but the coffee you can smell. It was positively tortuous as it was rich and dark and look Mama is definitely not going to be able to describe the smell of coffee as well as Gogol would, but just imagine it was really really tempting and permeated almost every room of the Gogol House Museum.

Upsettingly, Mama only found the café at the very end of the tour, and then we did not have time to go in.

A small cafe, showing the serving area and list of drinks and two chars in front of a window table

Gogol’s house is not really his house, but a three room apartment in the ground floor given to him by Alexander Tolstoy (some relation to the more famous Lev, yes) for the last four years of his life. It’s just off the old Arbat.

As visitors you get to go in and look at the antechamber where they have stored his travelling trunk, which gives the guide the opportunity to wax lyrical about his quite extensive journeying. He spent considerable time in Italy, for example, and went as far afield as Jerusalem.

They talked a bit less about the time when he took the money his mother had given him to pay her mortgage and went to Germany after his first attempt to get literary fame was a flop.

Mama is quite interested in what Gogol’s Mama did about that, although unfortunately no-one else seems to be so she hasn’t found out. The family estate stayed in family hands until it was turned into a Gogol House Museum by the Soviets though, meaning that while financial precarity was a bit of a theme in Gogol’s family’s life, obviously things never got that bad. Gogol also spent a lot of time back on the family estate over the years and his mother was always super proud of him, so there clearly wasn’t any lasting damage there either.

Mama has since encouraged my Speculative Big Brother and I not to get any ideas about playing fast and loose with her money, mind you.

From there we went and looked at Gogol’s living room. He liked cards, apparently. But it is also here that the tragedy of Gogol’s final days started unfolding, because this very fireplace was where he burnt the finished and only manuscript for part two of Dead Souls, the bit that was supposed to turn the ugliness of the first half on its head and redeem his main character, Gogol’s own soul, and the Russian Empire itself. Sort of thing.

He wasn’t happy with it, his religious confessor wasn’t happy with it, or the devil made him do it. Sadly, Gogol seems to have been in that kind of place.

It’s been dramatised on the tour. There are sound effects and everything.

What he then died of, just over a week later, we did not find out for another two rooms.

Off the sitting room is a bedroom, which Gogol, who had a secretive (or possibly repressed) streak, was not given to inviting people into. This is where his writing desk stood, and I do mean stood because Gogol’s writing desk was one you stood up to write at. Very modern.

I can’t remember the exact status of the furniture and such you can see on the tour because OBVIOUSLY this house does not remain untouched from when Gogol lived in it. It went through a number of owners after the Tolstoys, and when the revolution came was turned into flats for 31 families. Then it was occupied by the Kyrgyzstan representatives to the USSR, the Soviet equivalent of the Radio Times, and a library. From the library it slowly morphed into the current museum, memorial centre and still has a research library going strong.

So the desk may not actually be THE desk. Still. It’s pretty snazzy.

Next on the tour, was a salon type room, which was not Gogol’s special preserve but allowed the guide to talk more about Gogol’s writing career and his facility with dramatic readings of his own work, under the guise of showing us some old editions of his books.

A glass display case at the Gogol House Museum with an old edition of the Government Inspector inside, open at the title page

And finally we made it to the death room.

Because surprisingly, the tour of the Gogol House Museum did not start memorably with the details of his passing, as with he house museums of Tchaikovsky and Yesenin.

No, it built up to it.

This is because he died as he often wrote, with a certain amount of macabre panache and absurdity, which echoed on long after he passed.

The guide was at pains to explore these, but also explode some of the many myths about Gogol’s death. He did not, apparently, starve himself to death. He was not buried alive. And when they dug him up, as they did some years later to move him to a different cemetery, his skull was not missing.

That said there are some mysteries. What he actually died of, for example. The doctors at the time originally thought meningitis, the treatment for which involved boiling hot baths and ice cold water poured over his head, and a lot of leeches. It probably wasn’t meningitis, but it sounds like it could well have been the doctors that killed him.

Nikolai Gogol was 42 when he died.

After that rather depressing reflection, we hung out in the room showing various dramatisations of his works. They haven’t got Mama’s favourite one there yet, the action adventure Viy 2, which is wholly satire free but is gloriously over the top.

A statue of Nikolai Gogol outside the  yellow façade of the Gogol House Museum

Anyway. You might be wondering at the lack of photos on for the post, compared to most of our other posts. Well, Mama can only blame the destabilising effects of Gogol’s proximity for the fact she seems to have lost the entire batch she is pretty sure she took. Woooooooooooooo. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Woooooooooooooooo. Etc.

More information

The Gogol House Museum website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the truth about nose picking.

Address: Nikitsky Boulevard, 7a, Moscow

Opening: Tues, Weds and Fri 12.00 – 17.00; Thurs, 14.00 – 21.00; Sat and Sun 12.00 – 18.00; Monday and the last Tuesday of each month CLOSED

Admission: 200 roubles for adults, 100 roubles for children over 7, children under 7 are free. Currently, entrance is via timed tickets.

Getting there: The nearest metro station is Arbatskaya on the dark blue line. Technically this is in the same building as Alexandrovsky Sad (light blue line) Borovitskaya (grey line) and Bibliotecka Imani Lenina (red line). Technically.

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The Russian Fairy Tale Exhibition, from Vasnetsov to the Present

‘Babushka woke me up at 7am today,’ said my Mythic Big Brother quietly desperate on the phone to Mama, having unwisely bargained an afternoon round his friend’s with a morning at his grandmother’s. ‘We’ve been doing maths ever since’.

‘Not to worry’, said Mama, bracingly. ‘I’m on my way to break you out’.

‘Mmmmmmm’, said my Mythic Big Brother. ‘Are we going somewhere, or are we going home?’

‘We’re going to an art exhibition!’ Said Mama. Enthusiastically.

‘Well’, said my Mythic Big Brother, ‘I could just stay here…’

However, he changed his tune when we arrived at the Russian Fairy Tale, from Vasnetsov to the Present and we were given a map.

The Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

The exhibition is being held at the New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val’s west wing, which was news to Mama as she didn’t know the New Tretyakov Gallery had a west wing. It turns out that it has achieved this expansion by taking over the Central House of Artists portion of the giant square concrete block in which they were both housed. This, Mama thinks, probably means that the era of cat shows and real estate conventions is definitively at an end. On the other hand, Mama has long felt that the New Tretyakov Gallery was a bit underrated, retrospectives of great pre-revolution artists notwithstanding, and she welcomes this sign that they are going on the attack.

The map shows the different rooms the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition is divided up into, all coded by a typical Russian fairy tale setting – the forest, underwater, the underworld. Visitors are encouraged to travel around the mythical world, identifying significant magical items or characters on a proper fairy tale quest.

Which meant that as soon as we got inside, we children abandoned Mama to set off on our epic journey, occasionally popping back up to say that we had completed that section or to show Mama something particularly entertaining we had found, almost by accident in our hunt for a talking frog. Mama thus got to wander around the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition at her own pace, read all the explanatory placards she wanted and take many many lots photos from every angle without a lot of eye rolling and complaints. Bliss.

The carrot of the exhibition is the inclusion of really famous paintings by Viktor Vastnetsov, who was one of the first fine art painters to choose folklore as a worthy subject for his works.

Flying carpet by Viktor Vasnetsov

Many of which are found hanging in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, and so you might be wondering how moving them half a mile down the Moscow River is adding value. Especially because Viktor Vastnetsov also has his own house museum, which has just gone on Mama’s list of places to check out in Moscow, because presumably there are more gems for the ardent fantasy lover hiding out there.

Vasnetsov at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

But Mama would hazard a guess that even if you have visited both locations, you won’t have seen Vastnetsov’s paintings in a setting quite like the one at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition.

Bear at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

The map, you see, is not a metaphorical conceit, as the exhibition spaces are actually made up with papier-mâché styling into magical forests, underwater kingdoms and underground caverns, complete with twisty underground passageways.

Mixed in with the Vastnetsovs are some very contemporary takes on the archetypes.

Baba Yaga in contemporary art

And on Vastnetsov’s masterpieces themselves.

Three bogatyrs at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

There’s also quite the collection of film clips inspired by folklore and fairy tales. I mean, it was prolific, was the Soviet film industry, so it’s not surprising that they picked up on the potential. And if they are going to provide seating and headphones about half way round, who can blame all the kids and some of the adults from taking a lengthy a time out to watch Soviet-era cartoons?

Cartoon at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

Also, some items from plays or ballets.

And there are well known prints from Ivan Bilibin, whose fairy tale illustrations combining Russian folk art and crafts, Japanese prints and Renaissance woodcuts are iconic to the point of being inescapable.

Koshchei the Immortal by Ivan Bilibin

As well as objects d’art.

Magic carpet at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

There are short introductions in both Russian and English to the characters or stories you see around you, in case you have somehow managed to miss out on Baba Yaga, the perennially benign idiot, lucky Ivan, Vassilia the Compensatorily Extremely Competent Wise, the (Even More Accomplished) Frog Princess, the three headed dragon, bluff bogatyrs, all the talking animals you can handle or the deranged underwater king.

Heroine at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

Did you know Russian mermaids don’t have tails? You do now.

Mermaid at he Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

And even the quest is appropriate. If Mama were in the mood for wild generalisations she would point out that organised fun is very much part of the Russian psyche. And riddles are both quite embedded in a Russian upbringing and something that Russian fairy tales are very big on. Where do you find the death of Koshchei the Immortal? In the needle inside the egg inside the duck inside the hare inside the chest buried under a tree on an island. Obviously. It’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma and everything.

Koshchei at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

In short, the Russian Fairy Tale, from Vastnetsov to the Present is exceedingly bonkers. We absolutely loved it.

And because Mama has for once managed to go to an exhibition not on the day before it closes, but the very first day it opens, there is an actual chance that you might be able to follow our recommendation and go! Go! Go! It’s on until May 10th 2020.

More information

The exhibition page on the Tretyakov Gallery’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Urban Fantasy: Vampire Porn, Feminist Pipe Dream or Misfits Revenge? (which Mama wrote).

Address: Krymsky Val, 10/14, Moscow, 119049

Opening: Until May 10 2020, 10am to 6pm Tues, Weds and Sun, 10am – 9pm Thurs – Sat, CLOSED on Monday.

Admission: 600 roubles for adults, 250 roubles for kids, and there are family tickets available, which would have saved Mama a whole 100 roubles had she or the ticket seller been a bit more on the ball.

Getting there: The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val is half way between Oktabreskaya metro station (orange and brown lines) and Park Kultory (red and brown lines), opposite Gorky Park, in the middle of Muzeon sculpture park. There is also a circular bus route ‘Б’ that stops right outside and hits quite a few metro stations on its way around the city.

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The Museum of Telephone History Moscow is not phoning it in

Sometimes even Papa gets lost when trying to find an obscure Moscow courtyard.

Which is disconcerting enough, but what is particularly odd when you do finally locate it, this spot in the capital city of Russia, is being greeted by some bright red British telephone boxes. Just sitting there. All innocent-like.

British red telephone boxes outside the Museum of Telephone History Moscow

However, that’s what happens when you go to the Museum of Telephone History in Moscow.

On the one hand, so bizarre. On the other hand, another day, another museum of a Russian businessman’s personal collection. Vitaly Ezopov, CEO of Mastertel, a telecommunications company big in St Petersburg and Moscow, and sponsor of the Moscow Telephone Museum project, in fact.

Mama didn’t know the Museum of Telephone History’s Moscow branch was only two years old and a private enterprise before we arrived, which is one reason why she let me stay at home. She wasn’t sure quite how much fun I would have staring at some dusty, out of date technology, dead inside a glass case, which was how she conceived it was going to be before she, Papa and my Wired Up Big Brother went along.

Bust of Edison and a display of his telephone equipment at the Museum of Telephone History Moscow

This may have been a mistake.

It turns out that Moscow’s Museum of Telephone History knows that a large number of its audience is suspicious of tales of not being reachable by phone beyond the length of a wire that disappears into a wall, and wonders why someone would bother to call, anyway, when they could just WhatsApp instead.

(Please don’t write in and tell Mama that actually, all the cool kids are now not even using words and are communicating via the medium of interpretive TikTok clips, and even that is due to be old hat in 5…4…3…2…1. She is aware. She is just determined to remain behind the curve).

The Museum of Telephone History also understands that when it comes to technology, even moribund technology, what everyone actually wants to do with it is have a go.

So their tours are very much built around explaining to the next generation the evolution of mechanical communication, and the museum is not afraid to get out the plastic cups attached by string to help it do so. Or teach everyone a bit of Morse code so they can laboriously spell their name in telegraph speak. And even send their mobile phones though a pneumatic tube for the sheer exotic hell of it.

Shhhpoooooooooook! Ppphhhhhhoooooop. Cooooooooooooool.

Many of the prettier, more historic or celebrity connected phones are locked away from questing hands, of course. But it’s a pretty eclectic mix of the aesthetically interesting, such as this rather elegant model.

Antique telephone shaped as a lyre

And then there is the curious.

The sinister black phone with only one number, for example.

Single number black telephone at the Museum of Telephone History Moscow

Observe the British class system at work via the telephone labeled with the rooms of a huge stately home.

White telephone from a stately home for summoning staff with a photo of Winston Churchill

And an early payphone.

Early payphones, black candlestick model with a box to take coins on the side in a case with other vintage phones

It also has a lot of fan girl appeal. Phones used by ABBA!

A photo of ABBA holding telephones, and the same model telephone at the Museum of Telephone History Moscow

Yuri Gagarin!

White freestanding Ericsson phone handset used by Gagarin in a glass case. at the Museum of Telephone History Moscow.

Gorbachov!

An early mobile phone with a photo of Gorbachov behind it at the Museum of Telephone History Moscow

And look! An early example of IKEA mentality with a put-it-together-yourself phone kit!

A box with bits of an old fashioned telephone in that you were supposed to assemble yourself.

But you also get to play with the phones on the walls during the tour of the Museum of Telephone History Moscow, while the guide demonstrates how you stand (with your elbow helpfully propped up on the special elbow rest). How you actually place a call. How the bell summons you. How lots of bells summon you. Ooooh, what does this one sound like? Ahem.

Very early telephones on a wall at the Museum of Telephone History in Moscow

They also demonstrate how switchboards worked.

Two early telephone switchboards in front of a photograph of women operating them at the Museum of Telephone History in Moscow

And so on.

Gzhel porcelain figure of a lying soldier and communications equipment

Mama particularly enjoyed the exhibit which reproduces not just the feel of different dials but also the noise they made. Mama and Papa, in fact, had a bit of a cross cultural exchange as they tracked down the sounds of their respective yoof at the opposite ends of Europe. Ah, bless.

Telephone dials mounted on the back of a display case for visitors to touch and operate

Anyway. Let’s just say it was a lot more interactive and a lot more interesting than Mama was expecting.

You don’t have to go on a tour (although as you can see Mama recommends it, assuming you speak Russian). There is an audio guide provided via Q codes too (how modern, says Mama, who is determined to show her age today). Possibly in English. Possibly even in other languages. The museum seems keen on French. The have souvenirs in French!

Lots of old telephones hanging on a wall.

And!

The Museum of Telephone History is yet another museum tantalising Mama with the seductive smell of coffee from the cafe area in the corner!

[Actually Mama has just realised we haven’t gotten around to writing about the first one that did that yet. Oooops. Watch this space. *Waggles eyebrows mysteriously.* Although if y’all just followed me on Twitter you would already know.]

The Museum of Telephone History, then, is a small but well appointed museum, and well worth a drop in for Moscow residents, telephone enthusiasts or people who need to explain why we say ‘dial’ a number to their kids. Recommended.

More information

The Museum of Telephone History Moscow’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about mysteries of the telephone explained.

Address: 19 bld. 2, Sadovaya-Kudrinskaya St., Moscow, 123001, Russia

Opening: Tuesday – Sunday, 10am to 6pm (on Thursdays it opens at 12 noon). Closed Mondays.

Admission: Adults – 200 roubles, kids – 100 roubles. Excursions 1000 – 3000 roubles.

Getting there: The nearest metro stations are Mayakovskaya (green line) and Barrikadnaya/ Krasnopreskinskaya (purple and brown lines). There is a map on the website, which Mama suggests you look at and actually follow. Ahem.

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Should you go to KidZania Moscow (and around the world)?

Quite why I wanted to voluntarily spend a day working at KidZania Moscow rather escaped Mama.

Two adult KidZania Moscow workers stand smiling at each other in front of a theatre school and fashion studio next to a cartoon themed totem pole

KidZania, as the corporate website puts it, is a kid-sized indoor city using interactive roleplay to fuel a global learning and entertainment brand and develop financial literacy in children.

Or, as Mama puts it, it is a brutal introduction to the fact that at some point we will experience the joys of choosing between getting a fun job which doesn’t pay much or a boring job that doesn’t pay much. Or fighting with 700 people to get a chance to do something that looks interesting but turns out not to be. Or failing to get the job of our dreams. All while being chased around by our parents, who keep trying to give us advice about why we shouldn’t just follow our whimsy. Or why we should.

A white room with a large mattress tester in the middle and sample mattresses on a self to the left

Plus, other aspects of adult life such as trying to decide whether to spend the resulting pennies on pizza, rock climbing or a new car, and then realising that you either haven’t enough time or haven’t enough savings to do any of those.

KidZania Moscow shopping area with small colourful shops lit by neon signs

Advertising probably explains it.

However, in the spirit of proving that Mama does not always spend our free time dragging us round such culturally improving spots as house museums of unsuitable role models, we did, in the fullness of me nagging about it for ages, go to KidZania.

And it was GLORIOUS.

Says Mama, who found the adult zone, where they do not let the kids in at all, very relaxing.

A square workstation with charging sockets in the adult lounge at KidZania Moscow. A TV is on the wall in the background and a Bauhaus artbook on the table in the foreground.

Look how adult it is! Supremely tasteful decoration. Mama particularly appreciated the attention to detail involved in the very adult giant coffee table art book.

Oh, and my Industrious Big Brother and I enjoyed ourselves a lot too.

This is not an accident. KidZania Moscow (and almost certainly everywhere) really does put the effort in to help us achieve that.

When you arrive, for example, they have amped up the impression of going on a journey to a different world by making the area where you book in and pay very much like an airport departure lounge, a theming which is carried on as you go through the portal into the town itself.

And it is a town.

An indoor street at the KidZania Moscow themepark

There are streets. There are buildings. There are different levels. There is a race track. A construction site. A parked aeroplane. And everything. There is even the Bolshoi theatre. In KidZania Moscow anyway.

A mock up of the Bolshoi theatre inside the KidZania Moscow themepark. The blue sky and white clouds are painted on the ceiling and there is a streetlamp in the foreground.

It’s pretty big, in fact. Apparently there are at least 150 different things to do there.

The first place you go is the bank, so that us new citizens can get ourselves plugged into the capitalist system and prepare to take our places as the new cogs in the industrial machine.

And then off we went. Alone. Because adults are banned from entering the offices and factories and so on, let alone taking part.

The interior of a tea factory with a kitchen island set up with small coloured tea bowls surrounded by various stainless steel tea processing machines

The way KidZania operates is that each workplace has a little plaque outside which explains the work options offered, how long it will last, how often you can sign up, and how much you will earn.

Now Mama’s main objection to theme parks is standing in line. But at KidZania Moscow she was pleasantly surprised that this was not a particularly big feature of the day (and it wasn’t as empty as it looks in the pictures by any means).

She did find it paid to do a bit of scouting around to see what was going on, where and at what time, especially for the options that took place less regularly, like hanging out in the TV studio. But it was relatively easy to bound from one experience to another, and the waiting turned out not to onerous. And there was seating!

She was also relieved that we got just as much, if not more, out of the easy to get into jobs as the ones that she, personally, was eyeing up with interest, such as the opportunity to parade around on stage in a play.

A music studio with various instruments such as drums and a guitar on the right and padded benches on the left

Particularly fun were the ones where we got to make something like yogurt or our very own teabag or trot around the city on a quest to deliver letters or put out a fire.

A view of a model fire engine from above as it drives along a KidZania Moscow street. Bunting is hung across the street.

On top of the basic options there are some additional extras you can pay for, more extensive master classes involving things like making your own burger. Mama doesn’t think your kids will feel as through they have missed out if they don’t do them, but on the other hand, they get a burger to eat out of it.

It is, in fact, just a rather elaborate way of taking care of lunch (for the kids).

If you don’t fancy that, the town has its very own cafe, where kids can take their lunch break, and the parents can join them for an update on the busy day so far. Which looks like GUM, just to spice things up a bit.

A mock up of GUM in KidZania Moscow which is the front for a cafe

KidZania started in south America, specifically Mexico, and is expanding slowly across the world. There’s one in London in the Westfield Centre in West London, for example. And it’s coming to the US soon!

That said, you may find that copycat ventures have already arrived. In Moscow there are two very similar venues – Kidburg in the Central Children’s Department Store at Lubyanka, and Masterslavl in Moscow City. My Industrious Big Brother has been to Kidburg, and enjoyed it, but says KidZania was bigger and so better, for what it’s worth.

Also, KidZania is in the middle of one of the more fabulous of Moscow’s shopping malls, Aviapark. I mean, if you think it’s marginally weird that people in the middle east go on about their shopping malls, and you want to know why, then you can find out in Moscow (and for much the same reason – weather conditions make indoor play areas for adults as well as kids a very sensible proposition).

Aviapark is, in fact, the largest shopping mall in Europe, and has an Ikea as well as a Marks and Spencers, and room for 35 football pitches (there isn’t a football pitch inside, but there is a huge football stadium next door). Aviapark also has the tallest cylindrical fish aquarium (repeat after Mama) IN THE WORLD.

Parents will have ample time to wander around in a happy little shopping haze, or lounge around the (in places) upmarket food court area while their kids are occupied inside KidZania. If they don’t want to lounge in the adult zone, that is. We were in KidZania ALL DAY. And I reckon there’s still enough we didn’t do, or might want to do again for at least one more epic visit.

KidZania, then, is a theme park that really lives up to the hype. It’s probably best for kids between sixish and twelveish, and it probably helps if younger ones have an older sibling on hand to boss them into shape. But there were some teenagers bounding around when we were there too and Mama found that she was quite jealous of having to sit outside and press her little nose against the window to get an illusion of participation.

And so she was entirely unsurprised that KidZania Moscow does the occasional adult only evening.

Tempted?

If you take your kids to KidZania, and you really should, to be honest, wherever you are, then you will be.

Mama is booking herself into the town’s museum experience, for starters.

More information

KidZania Moscow’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Checkout: a job in the retail world.

Address: Aviapark Shopping Centre, 4 Khodynskiy Blvd, 4th floor

Admission: Kids (4 – 16) – from 1290 roubles, younger kids are cheaper or free. Adults (17+) – from 590 roubles.

Opening: 10am – 9pm Monday to Sunday.

Getting there: Metro station CSKA (western yellow and turquoise lines) is right next to Aviapark. There is, of course, ample parking, it being in a shopping mall.

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MosFilm Tour of a Russian Film Studio

Mama says acting, and in fact any job connected to the film industry, is a lot harder and frequently a lot less glamorous than you might first think. As demonstrated by the MosFilm Studio toilets on the MosFilm Studio tour. Which are horrible.

A mural showing two large hands pulling the strings of figures such as a cameraman, actors and musicians on a building at MosFilm Studio

Founded in the 20s (that’s the 1920s, says Mama, slightly shocked that we are back in the twenties already), the Mosfilm Studio is one of the biggest and oldest film studios in both Russia and Europe, responsible for a huge number of Soviet-era movies by people even foreigners might know about.

Like Sergei Eisenstein’s silent movie masterpieces, including the historical drama Battleship Potemkin. Remember? A pram bouncing down some stone steps? Regularly voted the best film evah. Or at least somewhere firmly in the top 100.

Andrey Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker films were also filmed here, along with the rest of his movies. Which Mama would have more to say about if she had actually seen any of them, even the remade version with George Clooney. Apparently they are good?

The Mosfilm Studio also made many films which won international awards at every possible film festival available.

Such as Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, a melodrama about the life of a female factory director, which was one of the Oscar winners in 1980. Apparently President Regan (of the US) used it as background research before his meeting with President Gorbachov (of the USSR).

Everybody else should use it as research as to what the Russian Dream looks like. Moving to Moscow, mostly.

Also worth it for the absolutely spot on early prediction (from a Western point of view) that after nearly two whole generations of mass female access to university education and state sponsored equality, women will be able to achieve modest career success despite being (spoilers) a single mother, but men will still be telling them that they should be less ambitious if they want to have a romantic relationship. Hurrah!

MosFilm produced an even larger number of films that are extremely well known within the former USSR. For example, the Irony of Fate, in which a man from Moscow gets drunk, gets on a plane for St Petersburg accidentally, and ends up in an identical street, and an identical block of flats to his Moscow home. Entering what he thinks is his flat, he meets a woman and…. It is a comedy shown religiously every New Year’s Eve and regularly quoted as an integral part of the New Year celebrations.

It’s certainly part of Mama’s salad chopping ritual.

By the end of the Soviet period the MosFilm Studio had made more than 3,000 movies, in fact. And it was by far from being the only studio in the former USSR, or even in Russia.

It is the only one now (it says) that has the capabilities of making a movie from start (I think that means scriptwriting) to finish (something something editing?)

It survived the dark, financially difficult times of the 90s (that’s the 1990s for those of you reading in the future) to benefit from fairly hefty recent investment. Which has just resulted in some lovely shiny new buildings to house props and fit 1000 actors at a time into an indoor shooting location, for example.

A woman's purple 19th century dress costume from the film Anna Karenina

The architects are super pleased (says Mama, who googled them) that everyone wants an Instagram selfie with their sign.

A large white logo saying MOSFILM in Russian stands in front of some modern buildings on the MosFilm Studio tour.

To be fair, that sort of size is something MosFilm is used to. One of their sound recording studios can hold a full symphony orchestra and a 100 strong choir at once.

There’s also quite a bit of state financial backing from the government for film making in general in Russia currently, as an active attempt to make sure that rapidly recovering box office sales go to home grown cinema rather than Hollywood blockbusters. This is somewhat controversial as commercially, many of these movies have not been quite the roaring success of Marvel’s Avengers series. In fact, very few of them have actively made a serious profit.

Three mannequin heads with large colourful curly haired wigs

MosFilm doesn’t do all that much film production under its own name any more, but it does lease its services and pavilions to other production companies for both film and TV. And luckily, it is also not so high minded that it won’t do quite a lot of high quality dubbing of foreign movies too.

Costumes in a sort of Cossack style from a famous Russian film

So all in all the MosFilm Studio territory is still a busy place, with up to 100 new projects each year. As a company, it claims to be highly profitable.

It also has its own hotel.

Therefore you cannot just rock up wander in and wander around what is very much a real working space. You need to go on a MosFilm Studio tour, which you need to book in advance, ideally collecting 20+ of your friends together first.

There will be signing in and registering to get through.

While waiting, you can admire the T-34 tank (among others), which MosFilm has hanging around right next to the gates, in case any of them should be needed for a film.

A T-34 tank in the grounds of MosFilm Studio

Apparently this is just a small tip of the iceberg of the tank collection held by the MosFilm props department. 170 tanks in total, in fact. Mama recommends you don’t try to invade.

From the tanks you will be taken to look at vehicles, all of which have appeared in various films. The explanatory placards tell you which ones, and the MosFilm Studio tour guide will remind you of any particularly memorable scenes as you go round as well as pointing out any other interesting facts.

Such as this not being a real Rolls Royce. It’s a Rolls Royce chassis built out of, I dunno, cardboard, around another car.

A car which has been adapted to look like a Rolls Royce at MosFilm Studio

This is a car from Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears, which Mama doesn’t have much of a recollection of ever noticing while actually watching the film.

A blue Moskvich car from the film Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears

These fine vehicles appeared in a variety of films like the Russian version of Catch 22, 12 Chairs, a biopic of the rock star poet Yesenin, and one of the sequels (the many many sequels) to a knock about contemporary comedy called Yolki.

An old car and an old fashioned red fire engine at the MosFilm Studio

There are also carriages that were in the award winning War and Peace adaptation. And the much more recent Anna Karenina movie.

Small one or two person enclosed carriage from the film Anna Karenina

But the exhibit that blew our socks off so that we clutched each other happily when we spotted it and took numerous selfies around it was this one. Mama had already given it a shout out in our film review of Viy 2 recently. Look at it! All steampunk and everything!

A steampunk style carriage from the film Viy 2 Journey to China

What refined cinematic taste we have.

Then we set off round corridors, because a number of display cases of items such as costumes, props and All The Awards are in all sorts of random out of the way corners.

A selection of film making awards, including some Oscars, won by MosFilm Studio in Moscow

Mama quite enjoyed feeling as though she was properly backstage as she was trotting along the linoleum, past the institutional decorating choices. Mind you, this was where the toilet experience occurred so it wasn’t all joy.

In the same set of Soviet era buildings as the garage is a also small room of items related to the art of grotesque make up, including a number of casts of actors’ faces, the better to turn them into monsters for projects such as a film version of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. With, y’know, the devil and a giant talking cat.

Plastercasts of a number of famous Russian actors faces

This sort of expertise probably came in quite handy when they were assisting the real life KGB by providing a body double for an abruptly deceased spy so they could catch his CIA handler too.

The Mosfilm Studio is so proud of its historical FX department they actively advertise a special animatronic exposition. Which aims to bring a whole scene from the 60 year old original Viy horror film (originally a short story by Nikolai Gogol) to life. With sound and everything.

We children of the digital age watched it. We were polite about it.

Mama thinks that perhaps it doesn’t need its own bullet point in the promotional materials.

What was genuinely thrilling, was getting to amble around the mock ups of classical St Petersburg and old Moscow. In what Mama gathers are called backlots.

Street set with classical old buildings on either side of a cobbled street at MosFilm Studio, a film studio in Moscow

This is especially true as the day that we were there, at the end of December in the warmest winter on record in Moscow, it was not snowing but it was the shortest day of the year and foggy. So, extremely atmospheric, and utterly convincing. Except for the oddly piercing lights, and super modern large new apartment block right next to MosFilm.

Set of old streets and buildings on the MosFilm Studio tour with a real modern highrise building in the background

Mama also wonders what the astonishingly hard to walk on cobbles are all about. Is it to get an authentic historical swagger out of method actors trained by Stanislavsky? Or because you need really big stones in order for it to show up properly on camera?

Old Moscow set MosFilm Studio, with cobbled streets and old crumbing buildings on either side

And! A friend who went at a different time says that the sets were actually being used for filming on her excursion, so they got to watch that as well.

Cool, although we also came across filming in progress in London once, and what that consisted of was standing around admiring some admittedly spectacular camera equipment and the lack of anything at all happening for about 45 minutes, and then someone crashed through a window, taking all of a split second.

Mama still enjoys watching Kingsmen to spot that very moment though.

Getting to see an actual sound stage, was also cool, again because, aside from the chandeliers, it comes just as it is.

Empty room used as a film studio at MosFilm Stdio, apart from two chandeliers hanging from the ceiling

They do let you into the permanent mock up of an Orthodox chapel interior. Which Mama has made a mental note to look out for in any future Russian film/ TV watching she does. She was particularly impressed that they have even recreated the little booth of religious essentials, candles, bible verses and domestic icons.

A large movie camera in a tripod stands in a set of a Russian Orthodox church at MosFilm Studio

Should you go on a tour? Even if you don’t know much about Soviet or Russian films? Yes, of course. It’s not wildly expensive, and what you are getting is a genuine unprettied up look behind the scenes at the reality of the film industry. Akin to being allowed to go and admire how everything is held together with gaffer tape at a theatre, or watch the dancers massaging their torn up feet between set pieces at the ballet, and so on.

Mama would have liked the MosFilm excursion to include the new buildings, but you can’t have everything.

Costumes of different types of armour at MosFilm Studio

Of course, you might want to pay special attention to any cars, bikes and carriages in any Russian films you do decide to watch between then and now. And see all the versions of Viy available.

If you do want to learn more about Russian classic cinema, then the street festival for City day a few years ago was quite Mosfilm heavy.

Alternatively, there is an English language podcast devoted to Russian and Russian interest films by a former Moscow resident, Russophiles Unite! which also features a number of MosFilm creations, and special guests.

And MosFilm itself has made a number of its films freely available on YouTube, many with subtitles.

What did we children think of it? We thought it was GREAT, mainly, as far as Mama could gather, because of the walking involved between display cases and little chats by the tour guide.

Children, Mama has concluded, are weird.

More information

The MosFilm Studio tour website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Bechdel Test: Women in Film.

Address: Mosfilmovskaya str. 1, Moscow, 119991, Russia

Admission: Tours start at 460 roubles for adults and 310 roubles for schoolchildren.

Getting there: Kievskaya metro station (light blue or brown line) and then a bus or trolleybus 7, 17, 34, 119 or 205 . Or Universitet metro station (red line) and bus or trolleybus 7, 34 or 119.

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MosFilm Studio Tour
Oregon Girl Around the World

How to celebrate New Year in Russia with Ded Moroz and Snegurochka

Some kids at school, I told Mama recently, don’t believe in Ded Moroz! They said he’s our parents!

Oh? Mama responded, non-committally.

I can’t believe how stupid they are. Not believing in Ded Moroz. The very idea!

Pffft. Said Mama, clearly agreeing with me.

In fact, I not only believe in Ded Moroz, but also in Father Christmas, who Mama says is probably a cousin, or possibly a brother. It’s confusing otherwise. That they come on different days and in different ways.

Ded Moroz, you see, is the Russian winter festival magical being who brings presents.

Ded Moroz, arms outstretched, stands in front of a decorated tree. He has a long embroidered blue fur trimmed robe, a blue hat, felt books and holds a large white staff. He has a white beard.

But not at Christmas, at New Year.

And there are some other differences.

As we all know, in the west Santa was invented by Coca Cola, but in Russia, Ded Moroz was invented by Stalin.

Well, sort of. Ded Moroz existed before that.

Originally he was a pre-Christian winter smith god called Morozko. And not entirely tame. There is talk of him kidnapping children so that their parents would give him presents.

By the 19th century he was a fairy tale character.

We went to see a play about him, in fact. It turned out that he lived in a chilly underground world you could reach by falling into a well in the middle of winter (as you do).

If you were nice to him and to the other inhabitants of this strange land, Ded Moroz would deck you out in beautiful (and expensive) jewels and warm furs that you could take home to your unpleasant stepmother and step-sister. If you were a spoilt brat, trying to reproduce this feat while utterly missing the point, those jewels would turn out to be quick to melt ice shards when you got them home.

A stage with a winter scene including the character Morozko

(Mama thinks this retelling has itself been cleaned up. There was no mention of the stepmother getting her husband to leave his daughter in the forest in inadequate clothing in the middle of the winter to die of exposure, or that Ded Moroz froze the step-daughter to death for insolence, for example. Can’t think why not).

In the 20th century, Ded Moroz was supressed.

But having cancelled folklore and Christmas along with religion, the Soviets discovered that this was quite unpopular.

And so a careful rebranding of New Year eventually took place. And who better to take over from baby Jesus the important job of cheering everyone up in the middle of a seven month snow-fest than a crochety wizard?

Obviously we couldn’t have him look too much like a plagiarised Santa, though.

So he is (usually) dressed in blue. His robes are long, and decorated with rich embroidery (and fur, obviously. It’s damn cold in Russia in winter). And he has a staff (with or without a knob on the end). He rides about in a troika, a sled pulled by three horses. He even wears Russian felt boots, called valenki.

Russian winter felt books called valenki, which have been decorated with sparkles and sequins and similar

This ethnic branding has been emphatically reconfirmed in more modern times with the increasing emphasis on Slavic traditions in any relevant celebration. Like Maslenitsa.

There is also no sneaking down chimneys. He is quite happy to turn up at your door at midnight or thereabouts on the 31st with a sack of presents and his granddaughter, Snegurochka the snow maiden. Who is borrowed from another fairy tale where blah blah blah, and then she melted to death.

A woman dressed as Snegurochka the snow maiden stands in the dark, all lit up

Ded Moroz still expects kids to earn their reward though. Children need to recite a poem or sing a song in exchange for a present.

Mama, who is not Russian, came to an arrangement with Ded Moroz a while ago that this was not going to happen in her house, so the gifts arrive under the tree in what she considers to be the correct mysterious manner. Albeit on New Year’s Eve. So when we wake up to eat a giant meal at around midnight after a bit of a pre-celebration disco nap, there they are! Miraculous!

Of course, we also get presents from Father Christmas on British Christmas Eve. But he limits himself to a reasonably sized whatever can be stuffed into a reasonably-sized sock.

Mama says she and Papa have spent quite a lot of effort, usually, on tracking down interesting things for us for not one, not two, but three gift-giving holidays (Russian Christmas is on the 7th January), and she is absolutely buggered if some old geezer with a beard is going to steal all their thunder.

Inflatable Ded Moroz, in red, and Snegurochka, in blue.

Anyway.

Apparently you can visit Ded Moroz at his home, which is astonishingly conveniently situated a couple of hours outside of Moscow in the town, Veliky Ustyug. As discovered by Moscow Mayor Yuri Lushkov in the 90s.

But there’s no real need if you are in Russia over the holiday period. He and Snegurochka will be absolutely everywhere, and under the tree to boot. Putting carved wooden representations of Ded Moroz there is a tradition.

A carved wooden figure of Ded Moroz the Russian Santa

Or, in Soviet times (or now, because nostalgia), papier mache ones.

Papier mache Ded Moroz figures from Soviet Russia

(Top Russian souvenir tip there by the way).

You can go to a Yolka, a special festive performance for children. There will be a play, but there will also be games, dancing and audience participation*.

We went to a very big one at Crocus City Hall, one of the bigger modern theatre and performance spaces in Moscow, which had a full sized indoor fun fair in what Mama is going to call the foyer, but is actually seven hundred large halls of activities. This made it a bit more worth the trek out of the centre to get to it.

A large indoor fun fair, with decorations and rides
Seats in a theatre auditorium raked down towards a stage which a large decorated tree and festive characters including Ded Moroz

They also have a Yolka performance at the Kremlin each year (there’s publicly accessible theatre inside the Kremlin, didn’t you know? Also good for ballet).

But frankly every single theatre, museum, park, New Year/ Christmas market, shopping mall and similar will have some kind of yolka-esque event going on, and some will even be free. There isn’t really a tradition of grottos. There’s just a really big party instead.

A man dressed as Ded Moroz stands in front of a large real decorated tree

Or you can go to a gala ice skating performance at places like the Luzhniki sports stadium. Ded Moroz is bound to show up.

Or enter a kindergarten. Definite Ded Moroz appearances there.

I mean, I can’t promise these people are all the real Ded Moroz and Snegurochka. 2000 actors just turned up in Ryzan for the annual fake Ded Moroz and Snegurochka parade, for example. These impostors are what get the rumours about non-existence started if you ask me.

The face of a woman dressed as Snegurochka the snow maiden. She is looking down and concentrating on something out of the photo.

But I recommend being polite, and getting your best poem dusted off just in case.

*Do NOT confuse this with a pantomime. It’s a lot… purer. Says Mama, who is not planning to explain the jokes we don’t get if we ever go to a proper British one again.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the influence of fly agaric on the iconography of Father Christmas.

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Celebrate at the New Year and Christmas tree decorations factory in Klin, Russia

In the small town of Klin in Russia it is forever New Year, at least it is in the Museum of New Year Tree Ornaments, attached to the factory that produces them in Klinskoye Podvorye.

A number of New Year and Christmas tree ornaments hang on a tree

Or, if you prefer, the Museum of Christmas Tree Decorations, the difference being almost indistinguishable in Soviet Russia, at least as far as the secular aspect of Christmas goes. Like decorated fir trees.

Delicate, handmade glass ornaments have long been a feature of yolkas (the Russian word for New Year/ Christmas trees), and every family may well have their own set of idiosyncratic baubles, although good taste might have overtaken the ones they actually put on display.

Vintage glass tree ornaments, mostly in the shape of stars

So if you wonder around any flea market, you can pick up genuine vintage ones, and last year, there was a display in GUM of the collection that a famous TV presenter here has amassed over the years by doing just that.

Mama’s personal favourite of Papa’s own collection is the pickled onion. Shame that small children and then a kitten who climbed the tree once a day means that she tends to stick to the hand-painted wooden ones when the festive season swings round these days.

But when she was offered the chance to tour one of the more famous factories where these tree decorations are actually made, she jumped at the chance. And in fact the name of the New Year/ Christmas tree decorations factory in Klin is ‘Yolochka’, in case you were not sure what its focus really is.

That said, I think the tour at Yolochka is more of an experience than a factory visit.

There are dressed up characters who get you in the mood, tell you all about glass, tell you all about the history of glass making in Klin, and tell you all about the history of glass New Year/ Christmas tree ornament making.

A character dressed in a blue onsie covered in coloured circles wearing a curly blue wig on the tree ornament factory tour in Klin Russia

Essentially it seems that what started off as a cottage industry making small colourful glass beads for necklaces, morphed into a cottage industry making long strings of colourful glass beads you could hang on a tree, other iterations of decorations and finally went full on large glass ball blowing, albeit still in a very handcrafted sort of manner.

A seated woman in a long ornate red and gold frilly dress and an overdecorated hat explains the origins of the Klin glass factory while seated in a replica wooden peasant's house.

The Yolochka New Year/ Christmas tree decorations factory in Klin was the first large commercial production facility in Russia, in fact.

At this point on the tour, Mama was delighted that we got shepherded into a room to watch actual crafstswomen blow some glass.

Mama was grumpy that she wasn’t allowed to take pictures at this point. She also wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the women in the next room who were painting the resulting New Year/ Christmas baubles.

Tree ornamentsin various stages of being painted at Yolochka factory in Klin

It was very cool though.

Yes, the word ‘factory’ does imply a certain mechanical automation of the process. But in fact, although there is clearly a production line in the sense that it’s a different person who blows the glass to the one who paints it, they really are not joking when they call it handmade.

In case you are wondering, among the most difficult to blow are the samovar shaped baubles, because they require you to be able to get three bubbles out of one glass form.

At the end of the tour they have a display of baubles and other tree ornaments painted by some of the more renowned tree ornament artists.

Nine hand painted Russian glass baubles with variouus winter scanes from around Klin in Russia, including a statue of Tchaikovsky on a bench.

Luckily for you, she was allowed to get the camera out again when we got onto the displays of New Year/ Christmas tree ornaments through the ages. And of course, since these are mostly Soviet ones, there are some really fabulous space themed ones.

A selection of vintage Russian space themed tree ornaments, including cosmonauts and space rockets

No, I have no idea how Yolochka does the cosmonaut shaped ones, the tree shaped ones and so on and so forth. Gotta have some secrets, haven’t you?

And finally the last stop on the Museum of New Year/ Christmas Tree Decorations tour is getting to meet Ded Moroz, the Russian Santa analogue! Himself! We held hands, sang the New Year Tree song, and paraded around a truly large, thoroughly decorated tree.

Ded Moroz stands in front of a decorated tree at the New Year and Christmas tree decorations factory in Klin. He is wearing a long blue coat with white patterns and fur trim, and large blue mittens and a white hat. He has a long white beard and outstretched arms, one of which is holding a tall white staff.

In October!

Then it was onto the masterclass of tree ornament painting. Obviously. We covered ourselves in glitter. It was great.

A tree ornament in a green box with the name of the factory, 'Yolochka', on it. The ornament has clearly not been painted by a master.

And Mama was by this time thoroughly primed to buy All The Things in the Yolochka factory shop. Luckily they have a range of stock to suit every budget. Mama recommends looking out for whatever odd animal theme seems to be incongruously conspicuous among the decorations. The Russians look to the other great celebrators of New Year, the Chinese, to add a bit of spice to the festivities. So whatever animal is coming up for Chinese New Year next will have a big presence in the New Year decorations on offer.

This year, the year of the pig gives way to the year of the rat. Mice everywhere you look!

Now, to get to this Museum of Russian Christmas/ New Year Tree Decorations, you will have to leave Moscow, and it’s a good hour’s journey on a fast train. It’s possibly a bit far to go just for this experience. Luckily, Klin is also the location of the Tchaikovsky House Museum. Frankly you really are missing an opportunity if, as well as visiting that, you do not pop over and experience the tour here as well.

Whatever time of the year.

More information

The New Year/ Christmas tree decorations factory in Klin, Yolochka’s website (in Russian).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about how to make salt dough decorations.

Address: 141600, Moscow region, Klin, Ulitsa Staroyamskaya, 4

Opening: Every day, 9am – 5.30pm (except 31st December, 1st and 2nd of January).

Admission: Around 500 roubles per person, although it depends how close it is to New Year and whether it is a weekend. Children under six are half price. It’s about 300 roubles extra for a masterclass.

Getting there: You need a train from the Leningradsky train station, found atop the Komsomolskaya metro station on the red and brown lines. If you get a fast, lastochka train you will be in Klin in an hour. Buy return tickets in Moscow if you have children, as concession tickets cannot be bought in Klin and you’ll have to pay full price for your kids to return to the capital. The trains run around every one to two hours, more during peak times. If you get a slow train it will take at least 30 minutes longer. One way tickets for adults will be around 300 roubles. You can easily buy them at the Leningradsky station itself, but don’t lose the rather flimsy paper – it’s what opens he gates to and from the platform, and it will be checked on the train itself.

You can drive (or get a taxi). Head for St Petersburg.

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In Klin it is forever the winter holidays on the tour of the New Year and Christmas tree decorations factory. You can even make your own baubles!
In Klin it is forever the winter holidays on the tour of the New Year and Christmas tree decorations factory. You can even make your own baubles!
Suitcases and Sandcastles

Guildhall Art Gallery in London: go for the Romans, stay for the plates

If you and a friend are idly rambling across the City of London from the Bank of England towards the Museum of London, you may find that you stumble across the Guildhall Yard outside the Guildhall Art Gallery.

And if you stumble across the Guildhall Art Gallery you may realise that you have never actually been inside, and decide to visit.

And this would be a good decision for any number of reasons.

Firstly there is a Roman amphitheatre in the basement.

Well, part of one, because Roman amphitheatres were pretty big, actually. Go back up to the Guildhall Square, and they have drawn a big black line on the ground to help you trace our the perimeter further.

Guildhall Yard, with the medieval Guildhall to the left and the 20th century art galley building to the right. In th foreground you can see a curved line which represents the perimeter of the amphitheatre. People are walking or standing in the square.

In fact, the amphitheatre is probably the reason the Guildhall, the administrative buildings for the City of London was built where it is. No need to start from scratch when you can re-purpose some nifty foundations and all that.

The City of London (note the capital letter), in case you are wondering, is a sort of super local council, needing to organise all the usual things in its immediate surroundings such as schools and the bin collection. But it combines this with continuing its historical role representing the financial, mercantile and commercial interests that still have their home in the City (note the capital letter). Bits of it are modern.

An old medieval building is on the left and at right-angles a modern concrete building with many glass windows.

Bits of it are not. It had special mention in the Magna Carta and everything, and was such a political force that it was stripped briefly of its powers after it supported the republicans against the kind in the civil war (when Charles II took back over, obviously). It survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz mostly intact. Mainly it just lost its roof, and its protective guardians, the two giants Gog and Magog, chained up in the main hall since time immemorial. Luckily they were able to carve some new ones.

Incidentally, if you are wondering what the Magna Carta is, here is a song about how the British invented democracy.

Anyway. Guildhall has one of the 17 copies of the Magna Carta. Because of course it does.

A picture of the Magna Carta, an old parchment with a large seal at the bottom

It’s not the administrative centre for London as a whole. It’s not where the mayor of London (currently Sadiq Khan) hangs out.

No. It’s where the Lord Mayor of London hangs out. Glad we cleared that up then.

Anyway. The historical buildings are now used for municipal and corporate entertaining. You can hire them, in fact, should you need a medieval banqueting hall that seats 900 and is suitable for formal dinners and cabarets (apparently). You can also visit them on a tour once a month or so.

But underground you can enjoy the fact that 2 000 odd years has exposed the clever plumbing arrangements for the amphitheatre, thus putting the focus on the Roman’s mad engineering skills not the fact that the stadium was used for watching people and animals fight to the death.

Some people stand in a darkened room containing some ruins from a Roman amphitheatre. Glowing green digitally projected figures and seats give an impression of what it may have looked like.

The Guildhall Art Gallery has about 4 000 works of art to its name, but only displays about 250 of them at any one time, which means that there’s a high chance of being able to go back a few times and not get bored after you have looked at your favourite things.

A gallery in the Guildhall Art Gallery. There is a woman walking up some stairs bewteen colums to a large open plan room with a red carpet, green walls and gold framed paintings. The ceiling is white glowing panels.

Among the things that will be there will be (changing) paintings of London. Mama has been out of the Big Smoke for just long enough to forget just how irritating she found travelling around, sorry, trying to travel around the capital, and decide that there were some things about it she quite liked enjoyed. In a misty nostalgic sort of way. So she liked that area.

Three paintings of London at the Guildhall Art Gallery. The top one shows an almost phtograph like quality of a pleasantly overgrown bit of wasteland and some red roofs. The bottom left is abstract black, grey and white squarish shapes and lines. Another shows a street scene at a markey with some cars and a building in the background.

The Guildhall Art Gallery is also big on the Victorians. Now Mama is not big on the Victorians. Mama tries not to judge historical periods, but largely fails when it comes to the Victorians, irrational though this may be. She considers them class and prejudice ridden, sentimental, violent, sexist, hypocritical, with terrible fashion and interior design sense, and a particularly unfortunate habit of demonstrating all of these traits all over the rest of the world.

Still, free art is free art. Which is presumably what all the great unwashed thought when the City graciously started collecting them paintings in the 1800s.

Two Victorian paintings. The upper one shows a woman cradling a dying man in a forest. A figure in black stands behind a tree, holding a sword. The second shows a groups of women in long red, blue or green stresses standing draped beside a river.

And then there is thirdly. Which is that if you are really lucky, you will be there when they have got the plates of William de Morgan out of the cupboard for a special exhibition.

A selection of William de Morgan plates with styalised animal and plant designs in blue, red and brown.

Mama was just this lucky.

A large plate with a styalised blue bird design by William de Morgan

William de Morgan was an Arts and Crafts sort of person, a friend of the wallpaper designer William Morris, who spent a very long time mucking around with tiles in Fulham and trying to work out how to do iridescent glaze on his pottery, called lustreware. And managed it! At which point this sort of thing became very unfashionable and so he turned, considerably more successfully, to novel writing.

A William de Morgan vase and plate in red lustreware in the Guildhall Art Gallery. Tiles are displayed on the wall behind and some people are in the background looking at them.

Mama does not share this lack of enthusiasm for de Morgan’s ceramics, and was actively distressed when she was alerted to the appearance on the Antique’s Roadshow of someone who had bought a de Morgan dish at a car boot sale for a fiver. Bah.

A large plate with a brown styalised dinosaur and foliage design. A woman in a floral dress stands in the background with her back to us.

Mama also appreciates de Morgan because his wife, Evelyn, was such a good painter she subsidised the pottery for years, a suffragette and an outspoken pacifist. Mama always admires people with taste. Even if they were born in the Victorian era.

Large plate with a styalised red peacock design by William de Morgan

De Morgan’s Dad was also on display. For excellence in maths. Mama quite enjoyed that bit too. Mama enjoys other people’s excellence in maths. It’s like watching somebody juggle with 17 balls while standing on a tiger. Or something.

The back of a William de Morgan plate which has blue and white rings and the name of his factory on it

So. The Guildhall Art Gallery is worth a visit if you are ever at a loose end in the area. Would probably be improved of they had a cafe on site though.

More information

The Guildhall Art Gallery’s page on the City of London website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Corporation of London.

Address: Guildhall Yard London EC2V 5AE

Admission: Free

Opening: Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm. On Sunday it closes an our earlier.

Getting there: Don’t drive. I don’t care if it’s a bit of a walk from either the underground stations of Bank (Central and Northern lines) or St Paul’s (Central line). Just don’t. There’s probably a bus, but Mama doesn’t live in London any more so her encyclopedic knowledge of London’s bus network has faded.

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GUILDHALL ART GALLERY in London has a Roman amphitheatre as well as paintings and a copy of the Magna Carta