When teaching English as a foreign language, some standard Q-and-A combos tend to come up. How are you? is always followed with Fine, thanks, and How old are you? elicits the full answer of such-and-such years old, whether the student is four or forty-five. In Moscow, I ran into a funny one: Anytime I asked a student what they were going to do this weekend, they were going to walk in the park with friends. Hoping to stump them with the past tense, I’d ask, “What did you do last weekend?” But, they were ready for it: “I walked in the park with friends.”
For the first month or so, I found this mystifying. I’d never known anyone, especially not children from the portable gaming generation, to spend so much time at the park (or walking, for that matter). Finally, curiosity got the better of me, and though seeing my students outside the classroom wasn’t tops on my list, I decided to journey into the world of Muscovite parks. There is no better place to start than the mother of them all: Gorky Park, formally known as Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure.
Gorky Park is the lone expanse of greenery in central Moscow, and to boot, it resides right alongside the mighty Moscow River, flowing through the heart of the city. At around 300 acres, Russia’s most famous park (partly made so by the 1983 film starring William Hurt) is not just a kiddie playground and open fields with soccer goals. I soon learned that, in a city far too expensive for its citizenry, these free public spaces are chocked full of the good stuff.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It’s an hour walk along the Moscow River from Red Square (or ten-minutes on the Metro). And, you’d miss it. Are you kidding me?
- This was the prized patch of vegetation in Soviet Russia. It is done up in grand fashion and is an important cultural icon.
- Not long ago, an architect was hired to spruce the place up a bit. Unlike most cosmetic surgeries, this facelift really suits Gorky.
- This, as my students taught me, is a true slice of authentic Russian life. A glimpse worth taking.
Standing in Awe of the Park
The first time I went to Gorky, I took the subway there, got off at Oktyabrskaya Station, and upon exiting, immediately saw one of the most incredible statues of Lenin. This is saying a lot in a land where statues of Lenin were sown like seeds across the landscape. However, there it stood, rising high into the skyline, enormous as his legend yet diminutive against the Soviet bloc housing that surrounds it. It was poetic. Oh, yes, and Gorky Park was just down the road.
Gorky Park opened in 1928 to much applause, and it stayed that way for many decades following. Then, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the curtain opened, Gorky Park’s reputation crashed and burned: Known as the park during Soviet times, it became more famous for outdated amusement rides and equally antiquated concessions. Then, in 2011, Sergei Kapkov was hired to modernize the park into an eco-friendly place with sleek cafes and new activities.
These days, the park rocks. Not only has the crappy amusement stuff disappeared, but it has also been replaced with attractive restaurants and awesome attractions. In the winter, when tourist traffic is lowest, a huge section of the park’s sidewalks is cordoned off to create the world’s largest ice-skating rink (I didn’t fall once). There were also ice sculpture competitions, a collective effort to create an amazing field of snowmen, and a Christmas market. Like a true Muscovite, I learned to be a frequent park visitor.
Walking in the Park with Friends
But, I digress: The first time I went wasn’t in the winter, and in fact, not a flake of snow had fallen or ice skater laced up. It was a clear, hot September day, and I was on a mission. I’d come to visit the Fallen Monument Park (known simply as Statue Park in Russian), which is across the street from Gorky’s main entrance and houses over 700 Soviet sculptures, signs, and monuments. Though officially a separate entity, it’s one of the great sights I associate with a trip to Gorky.
Of course, there are other things to see and do. Near the river, you can check out a mock-up of an old Soviet space shuttle and look across the way at the massive government buildings. There are also ponds surrounded by gardens with sidewalks that wind all around them. And, the park is full of activities, from skating and hockey in the winter to dancing and picnics when the snow melts. There always seems to be a festival, concert, or something in order.
I won’t lie: I took my students’ lead and became a Muscovite park hound, visiting many of the city’s great spots: Victory Park (military in nature), VDNKh (amusements), Izmailovo (splendid souvenir market), and so on. All of them are great, and truthfully, all of them are fairly well-stocked with Russians doing their thing, rollerblading, drinking kvas, eating ice cream, and “walking with friends.” However, if there is time for only one, then Gorky Park makes the list.
If you’re feeling spritely, I highly recommended walking from Gorky along the Moscow River to Red Square. I’ve done it in the ice and the heat, and both were wonderful.
- From Oktyabrskaya Station, you’ll head towards the Moscow River to reach the park (take two lefts from the front entrance, which is stunning in and of itself).
- To get to the Fallen Monument Park, you’ll need to take the underground road crossing, full of art stalls, right in front of the massive Lenin gate (Gorky’s entrance).
- If it’s winter, renting ice skates at the skating rink is inexpensive, but it’s best to go on weekdays in the morning, unless you are looking to show off your triple Axel.
- In order to walk to The Church of Christ Our Saviour and Red Square, simply go to the river and take a right. You can’t miss them, and there is a pedestrian bridge to get you over to the church. The bridge is also the best spot to get a picture of it.