Gorky Park

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By John Harrison and Kim Waddoup

Whatever one’s views of Russia are: whether you love it, hate it, have a love-hate relationship or are simply indifferent, there are some things that are difficult to deny have been done pretty well here. One of them is Gorky Park. We took a walk with Maria Ivanova, one of the park’s managers and asked here to tell us more about this piece of urban horticultural planning.

As we walked past the main gates, Maria outlined the park’s history:

“In 1928, the basis for Gorky Park as we know it today was constructed after an agricultural exhibition that was held here in 1923. The main entrance was built in 1955, but it has never been open to the public before June of this year. Now we have a museum there and an 18 metre high viewing point, which gives you a pretty amazing view of Moscow. The park has expanded since then and now includes Neskuchny Sad, which used to be a residency and grounds for aristocrats, then the grounds of the Golytsin hospital, and a vast new area in Vorobyovy Gory which we are actively improving now.

“The park has been going through a process of renovation since 2011, and work is on-going. The central part of the park has changed considerably from what it was in 1990s, when entrance was not free like it is now. Four years ago the whole concept was changed, and work began. The concept for the present layout of the park was developed by LDA Design from London.”

Passing one of the yoga centres (there are no specially designed yoga centres in the Park but there are places where yoga classes are being held as well as other activities), we asked Maria about the number of visitors and the people who organise events and classes in the park. “14 million people visited last year, up from 2 million in 2010” Maria said. “The park is used by a huge variety of groups, from yoga schools to Moscow University’s School of Journalism. We welcome ideas for events. Basically when somebody comes up and says: ‘I want to do an event’, we meet with them and engage our own team of creative people, who help them put it together, because it has to follow the concept of the park. It can’t be too commercial, it has to be educational, cultural, interesting, and appeal to people of all ages. The park is for everybody, but we don’t let people come here and simply to promote their business.”

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As we turned a corner, we came up to the Golytsin Pond, which, like everything here, has its own legend, which Maria told us about: “The Bolshoi Theatre used to perform Swan Lake on the island in the middle of the pond. We would love to invite the Bolshoi back to do the same thing again, but we can’t because in the mean time, a lot of birds and animals have made their nests and homes on the island. It is their home, not ours”.

Then on to the rose gardens. We couldn’t help wondering why people don’t steal the roses, something we asked Lidia, the park’s Chief Landscape Architect, and she told us that the public seems to have changed quite a lot since Soviet times, that “there seems to be a lot more respect”. Lidia filled us in on some horticultural details: “The park’s 40 gardeners, apart from planting flowers, tending to the flower beds, and keeping the paths clean, planted about 500,000 plants last year; about 300 different sorts in all. That’s a LOT of plants, but down from the millions that were planted here each year in the 1950s when riverside areas were ‘blanketed’ in flowers. Some 70 to 80 different species are cultivated in the park’s own greenhouses up near Neskuchny Sad. The overall horticultural plans of the park are approved by the Moscow city Government. The decision to plant patches of purple flowers, not yellow ones when coming into the park from a particular entrance, is that important. The park’s gardeners have their own favourite plants; for example, the park’s very own roses, which are prize winners in international horticultural exhibitions.”

After Lidia mentioned Soviet Times, the thought came to us that maybe the park is a sort of barometer of the times. So you see the park as being the new face of Russia?, we asked Maria. “Definitely, in the past, Gorky Park was a reflection of the notion of a socialist ‘city of the future’. People in Soviet times lived in pretty awful conditions, and they came to the park and went on rides. Even the toilets were better than the toilets that they had at home. There were places to dance, play chess, do sports like ice-skate in the winter, there was even a special parachute-jumping-training-place. In the 1990s it was a dangerous place, like the rest of Russia, it really was. The rides were actually pretty reckless. There were a lot of cheap and nasty food outlets around and so on. The new park is a combination of well looked after gardens and the wild forest areas of Neskuchny Sad and Vorobyovy Hills. You can bring your dog here, you can’t light open fires and do barbeques, but a big welcome if you want to hang out on the hundreds of benches, bean bags and have a picnic. We have no intention of cutting down trees, we want to accentuate and develop what is already here. Now Russia is going though more changes, and so is the park; we have the best modern art here, we have great audience participation and a lot of experimentation. Yes, in many ways, this park represents the new face of Russia. We don’t care what language you speak, what your politics are, basically we just want you to have a good time, that’s what we care about.”

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“How do you know what people feel about the park who come here?,” was our final question. “We have social networks, which put us in direct contact with visitors. Somehow we do get to hear what people like and don’t like. We are constantly tweaking things. We have free Wi-Fi now, and a new website is going up shortly which will have a section for non-Russian speakers. Basically, we are listening, and the visitors, not to mention the park, I think, is responding.”

How to get there

Gorky Park: Brown Metro Park Kultury or Oktyabaskaya Metro Stations
Vorobyuvy Gory: Metro to Vorbyovy Gory or Universitet (Red line), cycle along the river, or by car: park near the University, Neskuchny Sad: walk from Sparrow Hills, Gorky Park or the Academy Of Sciences. Orange Metro Leninsky Prospect (by Gagarin), or walk through Gorky Park through to the gardens.

The Garazh Museum of Contemporary art is now located in a new dedicated building.

Their English language website is: http://garageccc.com/en

Gorky Park’s English language website is: https://www.park-gorkogo.com/eng/about/