it takes more courage to retreat than to advance
The biggest difference between Russian military museums and British ones is that the Russians remember that they actually won. The CMAF isn’t just a great annotated assortment of Soviet and Russian military junk – though it’s definitely that, with a huge park of tanks outside and a pronounced WW2 bent – it’s a museum of victory, with that famous banner that once flew over the Reichstag (surrounded by captured Nazi weapons and standards liberally scattered with iron crosses) at the centre of the collection. As soon as you enter the museum, you are greeted by an enormous mosaic of heroic, sculpted Soviet soldiers celebrating their triumph. (Alright, so there’s a giant scowling Lenin head just in front of it, and off to the side, there’s a statue of some soldiers kissing, but the mosaic is what catches the eye.)
The post-war military stuff (with the tanks gradually becoming more boring, the planes becoming boring and then suddenly cool again) had lots of fancy Russian small-arms and the remains of Gary Powers’ crashed U-2 spy plane as well as cases devoted to the VDV; the pre-war stuff included a number of wonderful murals and dioramas of the (Russian) Civil War, and one of those little horse and cart jobbies with a machine gun. Out behind the museum building, under a grey sky that turned to snow as soon as we went outside, there was the expected artillery park, tank brigade, fleet of armoured cars, wing of jet fighters/bombers and pile of v-launch ballistic missiles, plus an armoured train and a collection of interesting marine weapons (such as a depth-charge lobber and a small warship.) The whole collection was behind a simple iron fence, within fifty metres of a children’s playground. That would be a cool place to grow up.
The Metro will get a post all of its own because it’s amazing and warrants one, but suffice to say that the new Dostoevskaya station (it’s part of a recent extension) is absurdly beautiful. We went to its equally new and equally stunning sister at Mariyna Roshcha before changing to the circle line, changing again at Prospekt Mira and rolling up to VDNKh.
VDNKh (vey-dey-en-khai to Russians and Bill, vuh-doonk to cool people) was one of the things we’d been looking forward to most: it’s an immense, surreal, semi-abandoned exhibition park, a sort of Soviet Crystal Palace/World’s Fair built on an obscene scale. Outside the park, the Monument to the Conquerors of Space swoops skyward and the great "Worker and Kolkhoz Woman" shines stainlessly with the glare of banks of spotlights, and within the triumphal gate the grounds are lined with pavilions built by all the Socialist Republics to show off their wealth and grandeur. The Space Pavilion was perhaps the most amazing of them all, a beautifully engineered hall as big as St Paul’s Cathedral, with a Vostok rocket hanging on its launch gantry outside.
Now bad hip-hop blares from speakers zip-tied to hammer-and-sickle-adorned streetlamps and hawkers try vainly to draw punters to their lean-to dives or carny attractions, but more than anything the place feels empty; not abandoned, but so vast and so thinly populated that you can feel alone. The pavilions are now either home to clutches of small, squalid businesses or just falling down completely; the Space Pavilion is almost deserted, with a few stalls selling flower seeds and garden equipment huddled inside it at one end. Even after dark, with the whole park lit up and Ostankino Tower standing cloud-high underneath an aurora of its own creation, I couldn’t quite imagine the place when it had been great. VDNKh isn’t dead – there are plenty of sad little fairgroundy businesses scratching a living at its fringes. Every so often there’s an attempt to revitalise it and some huge structure is built or renovated, and a few hopeful capitalists still use its huge pavilions for actually exhibiting, but it will never be filled in the same way. It, more than anything else, makes post-Soviet Russia seem like a child wearing its parents’ clothes.
Hungry, we stopped at a stall selling blinis (crepes/pancakes). Unable to really read the menu, Bill and Tom plumped for the most expensive "Tsar Blini" (turned out to be ersatz caviar) while I picked a 75RU one at random (turned out to be jam) and a couple of mystery pastries from the stall next to it (one was meat, one was a sort of tasty Russian sauerkraut.) Thoroughly footsore, we wandered the park a bit more and took a closer look at Worker and Kolkhoz Woman and the Monument to the Conquerors of Space before going on the Metro-exploring trip we’d been mulling since ever.
I think, looking back, VDNKh might eclipse Monino as my favourite memory of the holiday; it is fabulous and decrepit, triumphant and mournful in equal measure, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Next: The Museum of the Great Patriotic War and the Tretyakov (sort of.)