The VDNKh (The Exhibition of the Achievements of the People’s Economy) Park is one of the oddest parks I have visited. (The letters are pronounced something like “vedeenkha” and stand for vystavka dostizhenii narodnykh khozyastva.) We wandered into the park after the excitement of the Museum of Cosmonautics, looking for some fresh air, a cup of coffee, maybe. We found a strange mix of pavilions, some abandoned, a golden fountain that wasn’t working, and a monument to what seemed to be the electrification of the Soviet Union.
My children are growing up with no sense of the strange shadow that the Soviet Union cast over the twentieth century. A new country, magicked into being by a revolution, run by communists — for the people, by the people — the USSR intended to be a nation where equality was as natural as breathing. The economy was centrally planned, farms collectivised, and all the people would benefit. Just how wonderful life could be would be put on display here, in The Exhibition of the Achievements of the People’s Economy. Proof that Utopia had arrived.
On a monumental scale — as everything Soviet — the park is larger than Monaco. Opened in the Stalin era, in 1939, VDNKh celebrated and glorified the achievements of the 15 republics of the union, with a pavilion dedicated to each republic and the major forms of industry. The golden central fountain had a sculpted merry maiden from each of the republics dressed in national costume and soaked in the rain from the central giant bundle of wheat.
The fountain of the friendship of nations
One of the high points of my life is my visit to The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. You can see real Sputniks, for heaven’s sake. Russian space dogs. Yuri Gagarin‘s school exercise books. Not everything is translated into English, but most of the important stuff is and the rest speaks for itself. Look! This is history!
Besides, there aren’t many other places in the world where you can walk inside a Mir spaceship.
The museum is on Prospekt Mira (Peace Avenue), at the VDNKh metro station, and fairly unmissable as it lies beneath a colossal obelisk: The Monument to the Conquerors of the Cosmos.
The Monument to the Conquerors of the Cosmos
This titanium structure immortalises a rocket ship straight out of a 1950s pulp-fiction magazine. Off the rocket zooms while, below, Lenin leads the proletariat over the new frontier, with a baby at the front of the queue. This is what we were dreaming, back then. Sputnik was the future: socialism in space.
What time is it? Dawn, looks like.
Where am I? The core of the Cold War.
Where am I actually supposed to be? At this precise point. This sleeping on a train malarkey is pretty good.
The driver from the hotel picked us up in the dawn hours after our overnight train journey from St Petersburg. The hotel had asked which coach we would be travelling in, and the driver knew exactly where on the Leningradskaya Station platform that coach would stop. He had positioned himself and a trolley with military precision within millimetres of the very door we opened onto the Moscow morning. I was impressed. He whisked away the suitcases, bundled them into a very sleek and shiny car, and proceeded to drive us through central Moscow at a speed approaching that of sound.
Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building: one of Stalin’s seven skyscraper sisters
For our journey overnight from St Petersburg to Moscow, I wanted to travel on the Red Arrow train (Krasnaya Strelya), largely because it’s the only train I’ve ever heard of that has its own theme tune. As the train leaves, just before midnight, the stirring Hymn to the Great City (the anthem of Saint Petersburg) plays over the station’s tannoy system. In Soviet times, the Red Arrow transported the Communist Party elite between Moscow and the town formerly known as Leningrad. “Lenin travelled on this train to Leningrad and it has its own theme tune!” I said to my spouse. “Can a train get any better?” In fact a train could, because on the night we needed to travel, the Red Arrow had no available tickets. I sulked, sighed, then booked what turned out to be an equally enchanting (and much cheaper) experience on the beautiful blue Smena train, leaving slightly earlier.
The Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ is its official name. It’s also known as the Church of the Saviour. However, most of us know this most recognisable of St Petersburg’s landmarks as the Church on Spilled Blood. Because that is literally what it is.
A church from a fairy tale
Many rhapsodise about its other-worldly beauty, its glittering mosaics, its kaleidoscope of colours. Of course it is beautiful, and of course you must visit if you are in St Petersburg, but I found it sad, despite all the artistry.
Whatever else you may want to say about Catherine the Great, Empress of all Russia, she was an anorak when it came to art. She started her collection by buying a couple of hundred paintings in 1764. Nothing too fancy, just a few Rembrandts, a couple of Holbeins and Raphaels, and a nice Titian. A bit later, she acquired several hundred more paintings, as well as some prints and drawings. Gradually, Catherine branched out into other arts, commissioning extensions to her imperial home in the Winter Palace to display her belongings; the buildings are today collectively called The Hermitage. Catherine eventually acquired thousands of paintings, thousands of drawings, thousands of books, thousands of engraved gems (her passion), alongside coins, medals, sculptures, silver, clocks, furniture, porcelain and archaeological artefacts. Later Romanovs added to the collection, which also grew after the Russian Revolution in 1917, when private art collections were claimed for the people. The result is one of the largest museums in the world. We’d read about The Hermitage, knew something of what it contained, but nothing prepared us for what we found when we walked across that courtyard and through the doors of the Winter Palace. All that glass and gold. Marble floors. Crystal chandeliers. And so much art.
The Jordan Staircase is so called because once a year the Tsar would graciously descend it for the “Blessing of the Waters” of the Neva, a celebration of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan
What time is it? Not late for my meeting. Yet.
Where am I? The jewel of the Baltic.
Where am I actually supposed to be? Not by this flower shop, that’s for certain.
Who could not love Saint Petersburg?
I knew I was going to like it the moment we arrived at Pulkovo International Airport (ПУЛКОВО) and the driver met us as promised. “Dosvedanya,” I said confidently. (I later realised it meant “Goodbye”.) I raised my eyebrows and waved my arm in the internationally acknowledged mime for “Is the car very far away?” I envisaged the endless car parks of Heathrow. The already baffled driver looked even more baffled, opened the airport door and said, “Прямо здесь.” And there the car was. Right outside the door.
Car? Just outside the door