On our second full day in Moscow, I went on the Soviet Moscow walking tour with my guide, Joel, who I suspect is one of the few Mexican-Russians in Moscow. Our destination was outside of the city center about 6 miles to the north.
Our first stop was the Cosmosnauts Alley, Monument to the Conquerors of Space, and Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. The Monument, like the early achievements of the Soviet Space Program, is impressive:
The Monument, which depicts a rocket on lift-off, rises 360 feet and is made of titanium. On the far right in the photo, above, you can just make out a handful of granite busts, including these three:
Yuri Gagarin (on left, below), the first man in space (April 12, 1961), an international celebrity and a Hero of the Soviet Union;
Valentina Tereshkova (top right), the first woman in space (June 16, 1963); and,
Gherman Titov (bottom right), the Soviet’s top cosmonaut and the guy who was supposed to be the first man in space but ended up being the second from the USSR on August 6, 1961, because he was bumped by Kruschev in favor of the more photogenic Gagarin (who was 12th in the line-up at the time).
The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics was interesting. I got to see the cone of a rocket that launched Sputnik, the first satellite in space (October 4, 1957) which, lucky for us all, also launched the space race between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A.
I’m pretty sure that this capsule (with Joel standing next to it) was the one Yuri Gagarin used when he made his historic, first space flight and first earth orbit by a human – which, by the way, lasted a grand total of 1 hour and 48 minutes.
All in all, pretty neat stuff, but I was anxious to get back outdoors, so we soon left for our second destination which I am going to call the Soviet Expo (the Russians call it the VDNKh, an acronym for: Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva, which translates to: Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy).
Joel told me that the Soviet Expo is not featured in any tour guides and I suspect this is true. I didn’t see any clumps of Chinese tourists following a lady holding an umbrella, nor any other sign of foreigners. And, of course, there was nothing in English or any other language but Russian. Everybody looked local: families and couples out enjoying a day in the sunshine.
The Soviet Expo is HUGE. The entry is through this Arch:
The Soviet Expo first opened in 1939. The plan was to have a number of pavillions, each representing a different soviet republic or aspect of the Soviet economy or Soviet accomplishment. But WWII interrupted things and the Expo was closed. It seems that after the death of Stalin, the project found new life and a number of pavillions were constructed, although by the 1980s there was no funding and the entire place fell into disrepair and became a sort of bazaar for a number of years until it was revived and renovated in the 2000s.
Today, the Soviet Expo covers just under one square mile of land, an area larger than the Vatican and Monaco, combined. There are over 200 buildings, including 75 large pavillions.
Here’s the Central Pavillion, dedicated to the history and achievements of the Soviet Union, as seen from the entry arch:
And here’s a closer view, with Lenin out front and a Soviet Star on top. Note that there are 16 bronze plaques placed above the columns; they represent the 16 Soviet Republics, although, as it turned out, there were only 15: Armenia; Azerbaijan; Belarus; Estonia; Georgia; Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; Latvia; Lithuania; Moldova; Russia; Tajikistan; Turkmenistan; Ukraine; and, Uzbekistan – the missing Republic being Karelia, a lake-filled area between Russia and Finland that lost its status as a full Soviet Republic in 1956.
On our walk back to the entry arch, Joel mentioned that during the Kruschev years (1953-1964), a number of the pavillions were ordered to be demolished so that newer pavillions could be constructed. But, the architects in charge of the project felt that the original buildings were worth saving, so without letting Kruschev know what they were doing, they designed “boxes,” that is, façades, to encapsulate the buildings, thus preserving the original structures, some of which are now being restored, while others remain encased in their “boxes:”
This sculpture was exhibited at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, then moved back here to Moscow afterwards. It epitomizes the aspirations of the Soviet Union, a grandiose empire, built, theoretically, on the labor of the worker and the farmer.