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Gorky Park, Once Drab, Now Glows - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Gorky Park, Once Drab, Now Glows

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MOSCOW -- The runners and bikers arrive first, gliding along the bank of the Moscow River. Later come the legions of in-line skaters, parents pushing baby strollers, children on scooters, brides tottering on high heels.

But at 8 a.m., it is still quiet. Concession stands stock up on ice cream, corn on the cob, foil helium balloons.

Huge beanbag chairs, spread across the lawns, are empty.

A man-size samovar stands sentry outside a cafe serving 36 types of tea. Then there is the prototype of the Buran space shuttle, fitting not just as a monument but also because visitors here, especially local Muscovites, seem to have landed in a happier galaxy.

This is the Central Park of Culture and Recreation Named for Maxim Gorky, and the day's fun is about to begin.

"Davai, Yulia! Davai!" Sergei Kolosov cheers on his wife, Yulia Zaugolova, 32, as she lifts weights in a Crossfit strength contest. "Let's go, Yulia!"

Long a drab concrete repository of secondhand carnival rides, Gorky Park has been transformed over the past two years into one of the most extravagant, exuberant and excessive urban recreational spaces in a major world capital. Imprinted in many Western minds by the Soviet-era crime novel and film of the same name, Gorky Park celebrates its 85th anniversary this month. It is not only a park in the leafy retreat sense, but also a psychic respite from the increasingly tense political pressures of modern Russia.

"You can have a rest after the city hullabaloo," said Olga Sedoykin, who was in the park with her husband, Georgy, a dentist; 10-year-old daughter, Nastya, and 9-month-old son, Ilya. "It's like an oasis."

At 10:30 a.m., after Ms. Zaugolova struggled with the barbell, a different sort of endurance test was getting under way at the Pelman Cafe, named for the Russian dumplings called pelmeni: The first beers were on the table; the last would be served well after dark.

Beyond the gardens for strolling and the ponds for paddle-boating, the park in its current form is instead an entertainment destination with more than a dozen restaurants, two dance platforms, an outdoor movie theater, and Garage, a buzzy modern arts center housing an exhibition hall and concert space.

There are basketball and tennis courts, and many Ping-Pong tables, but the park also embraces extreme sports in a way that would thrill personal injury lawyers in the West, with places for skating, bicycle jumping, skateboarding and the obstacle-course bounding of parkour and free-running. There is also beach volleyball (thanks to tons of trucked-in sand) and even pétanque, the French bocce, played nonstop outside a cafe that could have been imported directly from Provence.

The park is named for Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik writer and political activist who died in 1936. And in transforming it from the surly and stressed-out Russian capital, the country's contemporary leaders seem to be echoing a Soviet strategy of making public spaces as grand as possible -- subway stations with chandeliers and mosaics, for instance -- all to make people feel a bit better about constraints in other aspects of their lives.

These days in the park, no one asks if two women holding hands are sisters or lovers, if the family members eating ice cream are immigrants from Vietnam or tourists from Beijing. 

In the park, away from the drone of state-controlled television and its reminders of how entrenched Russia often remains in its past, the possibility of living in a city where people feel as free and empowered as those in New York or London seems  tantalizingly near. 

The park has rules, of course, evidenced by signs like "No Swimming" near the ponds and fountains. But these are regarded by Russian parkgoers less as an edict than as someone's opinion, much like the rules against parking on sidewalks.

Mayor Sergei S. Sobyanin, who is running for re-election, counts rejuvenating the city's parks as one of his main achievements, and he has an even bigger, multimillion-dollar renovation planned that will connect Gorky to several other parks for a green belt along much of the Moscow River.

No one interviewed in the park, however, was interested in giving him credit or talking about politics, though they agreed the park was much improved. "Before it was a quite a criminal place," said Andrey Kritsky, the director of an audit firm whose daughter, Alice, 10, was hiding in a hollowed-out tree stump. Alice said, "We came here for mama's birthday and took a boat and it was very nice."

A short stroll away, Latin music thumped from a dance platform where two fitness instructors, sponsored by Reebok, led several dozen people in a Zumba workout.

The park, designed by the constructivist Soviet architect Konstantin Melnikov, opened in 1928. Originally called the Cultural Complex in the Open Air, it was renamed in 1936 after Gorky.

For older Russians, the renovated park offers an abundance of luxuries.

"There were not enough benches," said Yelena Kleymyonova, 55, who was lying on a double-size wicker lounge chair with her companion, Valery Shishkin, 67. "Now it's all different. No entrance fee. People can ride bicycles, and you can walk barefoot on the grass. It's all so clean.

"There were no restaurants, but now there are plenty. You won't go hungry here."

At the center of the lawn, seven friends sat around a blanket on the ground, with a can of Pringles and bottle of Vittel mineral water, playing Monopoly. On another wicker lounger nearby was a young woman with a baby and, on the next chair over, a couple who seemed ready to make one -- legs and arms entangled, kissing passionately.

Enjoying a different sort of devil-may-care sensibility was Danil Krablenko, 4, wearing an orange helmet with white stars, as he raced up and down the ramps on his in-line skates, jumping, twirling and twisting in the air. His brother, Aleksandr, 5, was doing the same.

Their father, Aleksei, 36, a professional fitness coach, said that more could be done, and faster, to improve Moscow, but the park renovation was a positive signal. "I like the trend," Mr. Krablenko said. "At least they take into consideration what people want."

On the other side of the park, Irika Melnik, 25, wearing a white wedding dress and five-inch hot pink stilettos, climbed up an old-fashioned carousel, joining the little children on horseback. She posed for photos with her groom, Sergei Kopylov, as a friend uncorked a bottle of Champagne.

At 5:45 p.m., just around the bend, Dasha Ignatova, 21, and Masha Fastovyets, 23, had set up their own private photo studio on a patch of grass. Russian women love to glam for the camera, an activity that can often consume an entire day.

Ms. Ignatova, in a short pale yellow sundress, preened and pouted and did pirouettes, throwing her hands in the air. Instead of "cheese," she shouted, "Rock 'n' roll!"

Asked why they were taking pictures, the two young women hesitated as if the question were so dumb it might be a trick.

"We are pretty," Ms. Ignatova said.

Across a path, a dog in a rhinestone collar chased a squirrel up a tree. Nearby, a group of jugglers prepared to perform, pulling bowling pins from a knapsack and stretching a rip-line between two trees. Diners at a cafe enjoyed steaming plates of grilled meat, overlooking the pond, now patrolled by the full fleet of paddleboats. Two young men sitting in the shade pulled out a hookah for a smoke.

At sundown, around 9 p.m., the restaurants and cafes are still full. Street lamps come on and the day's happy prattling drops to a cocktail party hum. Children and scooters are carried now. Sweaters are put on -- a reminder that summer is fleeting, and fleeing fast.

Friends gather around benches, and discreetly open bottles of wine. Colorful lights come on in the central fountain, creating a rippling rainbow under the water, as plumes arc into the sky, gold, blue, red, green. The crowds thin, but the park does not really begin to empty until midnight, when the fountain shuts off, and there is less to see. Even then, crowds linger. The paths are well lighted.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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