May 9th is a very important holiday in Russia when they celebrate the victory of the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany in 1945. It is celebrated with parades in major cities, including a display of military power – tanks, missiles, soldiers, aircraft flying overhead – in Red Square. I was very keen to see this parade.
Across the city (and the country) are many patriotic displays and flags, people wear the small pilotka hats, and wear orange and brown ribbons as a mark of respect.
We got up early and knowing that Red Square was closed to everyone except invited dignitaries, we took the decision to take a spot near the Dinamo metro station (and the football stadium of Dinamo Moscow). It appeared we had chosen a good place as there were already lots of people there wearing Victory Day ribbons, hats, uniforms and holding placards and flags.
Once again it was the weather causing us problems, it kept spattering with rain and a very cold wind hit anyone who ventured out from the station walls. But we got hold of a complementary flag and waited with the others. And waited… and waited…
It seemed like no-one really knew what was happening, we knew the parade would have finished at about 11 am and when it was getting close to noon we started asking policemen and other people if they knew what was happening.
It turns out that the parade was downscaled because of the weather – there would be no overhead flight display, and wherever the tanks and missiles had gone, they would not be coming past our location. However the crowds were still gathering because a march of the Immortal Regiment – relatives of the soldiers who died in the Great Patriotic War (World War II to us) would commence from here to Red Square. This is why so many people were holding placards of photographs of their fathers, grandfathers and uncles.
Rather than stay for the march, we got on the metro and headed to a park complex called VDNKh (the Kh is just an X in Russian). This was originally built for all the republics of the Soviet Union to come together in the spirit of friendship and unity. There was a building for each of the Soviet states, fountains and shops, and the park was and still is served by a monorail.
Not technically part of VDNKh, but very close by, is an extremely noticeable monument of a rocket rising into the sky atop great curving metal flumes. This is a monument to the space pioneers of the Soviet Union, and underneath the monument is a museum which was our next destination!
There were numerous exhibits including copies of the early space vehicles (the first satellite, Sputnik, and the first manned vehicle) and the rockets they used (Soyuz, Vostok, Voskhod, Salyut), and the one-shot Russian version of the Space Shuttle, Buran. There were artefacts from space missions, exhibitions about the scientists and engineers who made the space programme possible, and exhibitions about things like health in space, eating in space, the clothes cosmonauts wear and the training programmes.
Seeing the actual size of the capsules and the cramped space in which one person, or even more amazingly, two or three people had to live for days at a time, with only a layer of metal between them and the vacuum of space, was quite eye-opening. There were sad stories too – Yuri Gagarin died in a training exercise while still a young man, and Laika the first dog in space died within hours of take-off as her capsule overheated. But the journey to the current era of co-operation resulting in the International Space Station is well depicted.
Missing Indian food since there are no Indian restaurants in Volgograd, I wanted to see if I could find an Indian restaurant in Moscow. There are a few and as it happens, one was quite close to VDNKh. It was a strange place with a rabbit-warren layout of rooms, and the menu did not have an especially large range of Indian food. I ordered a chicken curry, thinking I’d be pretty safe with that, but the curry they presented me with was a korma (containing almonds, coconut and cream) – I tried a few mouthfuls but found it inedible. Janna’s chicken curry with mushrooms looked much nicer and more like the curries I am used to, but I have an aversion to mushrooms, so I just had French fries for dinner. They never brought the drink I ordered either…
Afterwards we wandered over to VDNKh proper. We passed a Burger King outside which speakers were playing Russian military music, I found this an amusing contrast of cultures. Then along the outside of VDNKh was an alley full of marketeers and hucksters, selling trinkets, toys, snacks and offering challenges to win things (like knock down the cans with a throw, climb a wobbly ladder). There were fire-eaters too!
Inside VDNKh there was a beautiful fountain. I am told that the golden figures each represent one of the Soviet republics.
There were plenty of other fountains and gardens.
The surrounding buildings have been converted into museums, exhibition centres and various other tourist attractions – one was called the Museum of Robots. At the far end there is a restaurant made out of the Buran space shuttle (or rather a very realistic copy), and one of the fountains has a large rocket marked “Vostok 1” hanging over it.
With the weather still cold and occasionally rainy we decided to go into one of the buildings – in fact there were many different attractions in this building but the one that attracted me initially was called the Museum of Optical Illusions.
It wasn’t quite what I expected – basically it was backgrounds painted onto walls and floors which when photographed from a certain point, made you appear as if you were part of a dramatic scene. It was good fun, but not really very science-y.
There were some other attractions with a similar photo-op element – one with very over-sized props, one where everything was upside-down. There were also a selection of labyrinths – one full of mirrors (very confusing and easy to get lost in!), one full of ribbons, and one full of terrors and horrors. We bought a ticket to let us go in 5 attractions and it was a fun evening!
On the way out of VDNKh we stopped at one of the sellers and I bought a pilotka hat. We then headed for Sparrow Hills (where the Moscow University building is located) for a good view of the Victory Day firework display.
Many, many other people had the same idea and there were crowds of people making their way up the hill from the metro station. We passed a couple of potentially good viewing points and eventually came to one right in front of the university building. All the areas by the edge were already taken so we climbed up a wet grass bank and found a relatively stable place we could stand with a view. As the place filled up other people tried to occupy less stable pieces of the hill and there were a few who slipped and slid down again.
We didn’t have to wait long for the fireworks, at 10pm on the dot there were three loud bangs that went right through our bodies, and suddenly the sky was bright with light! With each new volley of fireworks the people around us applauded and cheered, and shouted “Oooorah!” (the Russian version of “Hurrah!”). It was a beautiful view – we could see the stadium, the river, and much of the city, and the trees that partly obscured the view actually gave the pictures some contrast and focus.
Of course then we had to go home, and of course everyone wanted to go to the metro! It took a long time for the crowd to filter through, there were a lot of excited young people behind us chanting and singing and we were worried they might start pushing, but the police were around and kept a good line and most people were sensible. It took a while but we eventually got to the station. If anything they were letting people through so slowly that when we left, the train was barely half-full.
So, while I was disappointed I didn’t see the Victory Day parade, the fireworks were amazing and we had a good time at the space museum and the Hall of Attractions.