Friday, 22 January 2016

Mark Galeotti: Park Pobedy (Victory Park) – a warrior state’s love poem to itself

"Victory Park, billed as a memorial to the people who fell defending the Motherland but, frankly, rather a monument to tsarist and Soviet regimes that comfortably allowed their people to be used as human ammunition, in the name of defending, asserting or extending its own power."

I visited this park in 2002 and was impressed with the scale of it.

I always find these places slightly unsettling - very moving, but at the back of your mind you question whether the real motive of such grandiose monuments is (or was in Soviet times) to distract the population from their current travails - a reminder of past glories and the huge detrimental effect of the Great Patriotic War on the economy (implying that current living standards remain affected).

And of course, you cannot help but contemplate the appalling loss of life as a consequence of regimes which "allowed their people to be used as human ammunition".  Nevertheless, Victory Park is very impressive and is a beautiful public open space in the spring and summer, especially when the rows of fountains are operational.

In the late eighties, I remember a programme about perestroika, which included (or was presented by) Vladimir Pozner, and included a feature on this monument.  At the time, it was a half-built, already decaying, concrete monstrosity on an abandoned construction site.

If I recall correctly, Brezhnev had commissioned the construction, but there were not sufficient funds to complete it.  Muscovites were beginning to resent the huge sums spent on grandiose monuments during the eighties (and I understand the Gagarin statue on Leninsky Prospekt, completed in 1980, was not well received) and the advent of glasnost allowed this resentment to be expressed more vocally.  I often wondered whether the monument would ever be completed.

10 common Russian superstitions

10 common Russian superstitions: Russians are a very superstitious people. According to a recent Russian Public Opinion Research Center’s (VTsIOM) survey in October 2015, 50 percent of Russians conform their behavior to thei…

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Russia without whom?

Russia without whom?: As the Soviet Union collapsed, a generation had just been born. The online journal Russia without us catalogues their struggle to find a place in today’s Russia. Interview. (…

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Cosmonaut's Exhibition - Science Museum

At precisely the time I walked into the Cosmonauts exhibition hall on Friday 15 January 2016, the small steps for me coincided with Tim Peake's giant leap into the cosmos - as Britain's first 'official' astronaut conducted his first space walk, or Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA), from the International Space Station.  A month earlier, Tim Peake launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Russian Sozuz rocket bound for to the International Space Station (ISS), on 15 December 2015, the coverage of which  was beamed live by the BBC from from the Science Museum in London.  This coincided with a major exhibition staged by the Science Museum celebrating Russia's achievements in space.

The Cosmonauts Exhibition opened in September 2015, having been announced at a press conference in May which was attended by Alexei Leonov not long after the 50th anniversary of the anniversary of his space walk - the very first such EVA in March 1965, and Valentina Tereshkova - the first woman in space.

I grew up with the excitement of the space race, especially the lunar landings, space shuttle launches as well as Skylab and the Sozuz-Apollo mission.  Like most kids I knew, I was obsessed with space flight and wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.  I had an old cine projector on which I would frequently watch a silent, black and white film of the first lunar expedition.  While us in the West were brought up on NASA's achievements in space during the 1970s, and we talk of Astronauts rather than Cosmonauts, I did have a collection of Brooke Bond tea cards which charted mankind's achievements in space - both American and Russian and was often puzzled at the odd lettering, eg CCCP, on the equipment.

Of course at the time, I had no idea as to the political realities influencing or motivating the superpowers during the space race.  I think I had the naive presumption that space was not primarily a military endeavour, but rather a joint exploration arising from mankind's curiosity.  This view was in part reinforced by the Soyuz-Apollo mission whereby Soviet and American modules docked in orbit (such cooperation occurred at the height of the Cold War).  Alexei Leonov, incidentally, was a member of the Russian crew for that mission.

Although the childhood obsession with space exploration waned over the years, some interest remains; the memories of the excitement of those times remain; long forgotten facts endure - locked deep in memory only to resurface when prompted by some external stimulation such as a well curated exhibition like the one at the Science Museum.

Now, I have probably seen many of the exhibits before in Moscow - at the Space Pavilion in Moscow's exhibition park VDNKh or the Cosmonaut Museum housed in the plinth of the titanium Space Explorer's monument near the VDNKh metro station.  However, this was well over 25 years ago, and the last time I was in the Space Pavilion, in 1993, it had been turned into a second-hand car lot selling US cars - such a disappointment, typical of the plunder of the country and cultural insensitivity by the US in the wild 90s.

Anyway, this was so long ago and I can barely recall the artefacts I have seen exhibitions.  The exhibits in Moscow  were so numerous - row upon row of satellites which had the appearance of the innards of a gas boiler bolted onto diving equipment and looking no more sophisticated - that it was hard to absorb any meaningful information.

This is the beauty of the Science Museum's exhibition.  It is a well curated exhibition, with carefully selected artefacts, presented in an imaginative, attractive, and informative way - it manages to capture the excitement of the early years of the space race and the impact it had on the rest of the world.  Of course, the enthusiasm and the knowledge of the volunteer guides adds to the overall experience.  For me, Cosmonauts did evoke memories, unearth long-forgotten facts, re-acquaint me with the familiar, as well as providing much which was new: Helen Sharman's spacesuit from the 1991 Project Juno mission to the Mir space station (Helen Sharman was the first UK-born person in space whereas Tim Peake is the seventh), Valentina Tereshkova's return module (Tereshkova was the first woman in space), lunar lander, lunar rover, space food, and memorabilia relating to Gagarin's 1961 flight and the world's reaction to it.

From the Science museum blog, one of the volunteers sums it up perfectly: "For me there is paradox at the heart of this exhibition. You look at the hardware and you can’t help wondering at how primitive it all looks, as if it was simply bashed together in a workshop. However, you look closer and you begin to see just how awesome and sophisticated it really is. I am captivated by the personalities and the stories, and when you match the stories with the hardware, you begin to understand what true pioneers these people were."

Exit through the gift shop

Last but not least, there was the gift shop.  I was almost as excited by this as I was the exhibition itself - there was a fantastic array of products for sale: posters, books, t-shirts, badges, hats, fridge magnets, even a replica Sozuz 39 cosmonaut flight suit jacket.

I could have spent a fortune.  I passed on the jacket and the Laika shawl, although I did get a t-shirt and a few other nick nacks.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Korolev died 50 years ago today

Sergei Pavolvich Korolyev - the "Chief Designer" was the head of the Soviet space program in the 1950's and 60's during the early years of the space race.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Happy New Year! С новым годом!

Happy New Year from Dave's Russia Page!

Here is how New Year was greeted in the Golden Ring City of Vladimir - some spectacular views of the city!