MOSLENTA browsed the photo archive of the Central Park of Culture and Leisure, selected the ones that were deemed to be the best and spoke with its curator, who shared the story of what winter fun looked like in the country’s main park throughout its history, from Stalin to Khruschev and Brezhnev.
Elena Soboleva, Head of the History and Education sector at Gorky Park:
In the book “The Holiday is Always with Us,” written by the first director of Gorky Park, Betty Glan, there is a chapter called “The Winter’s Tale”. There, she describes how, in 1931, Gorky Park managed to provide winter entertainment and became the first park to do so in the world. In addition to this, thousands of people went the park to skate, ski and sled. Many also came here to simply stroll along the numerous allies of the Park, which were covered in snow and adorned with holiday lights.
Betty Glan insisted that the Park offered entertainment not only during the summer, but in the wintertime as well. Apart from new initiatives, such as carnivals, festivals and sporting events, Gorky Park adopted traditional festivities (such as Christmas kolyadki), and adapted them to suit the Park’s spirit.
Back in the 1930s, the Park was the largest and principal leisure and entertainment venue downtown – there was simply no other place like it. The “Velikan” (“Giant” in Russian) cinema, which seated 1200 people, seemingly attracted half of all Moscow movie-goers. It was designed by Brazilian architect Rodrigo da Costa and currently houses the Gorky Park administration.
Bright lights, non-stop music, and a variety of different entertainment activities– it is not surprising that every Muscovite wanted to come here. But the place was especially popular among younger people. Ice rinks and dance floors were the place to be if you were looking to flirt and find romance.
Rinks and Hills
The skating rink, which was the largest in the city up until the 1990s, was the most popular attraction. Indeed, it had a whopping 125,000 square meters of ice – squares, stadiums, alleys and the embankment was specially flooded in the winter to provide one enormous skating area.
The rink had festive lights and dance music. The grim reality of Moscow during the 1930s gave way to a holiday wonderland, where kids and adults alike could come and forget about their problems for some time. Fifteen to 20 thousand people visited the skating rink daily – a considerable figure even by today’s standards.
Skate rentals, lockers and cafes that served hot tea and sandwiches were available at four pavilions, one of which currently houses the Park’s “Green School” and Garage Museum Educational Centre.
Many Muscovites either learned to skate here or honed their skills and tried out figure skating. In Neskuchny Garden at Vorobyevy Gory (Sparrow Hills), which, at the time, did not belong to Gorky Park, there were many ski routes. Some of the hills were specially covered in ice, which attracted kids with sleds from all of the surrounding areas.
As of 1931, a figure skating school was founded and headed by Samson Glyazer, who was a figure skater, coach and hockey referee. The school was extremely accessible, as anyone could participate in the training sessions as long as they had their own skates or rented them at the premises. Many Soviet athletes who later participated in World Championships and the Olympic Games began their career right here, at Glyazer’s school.
Cavalry Orchestras and Satirical Duos
Gorky Park regularly held organized figure skating and ice dancing exhibitions, which were performed by skaters who did their training there. Until the 1960s, such events were not televised, thus huge crowds gathered at the park to watch the ice shows. These performances were generally held on weekends, because it was on these days that military cavalry orchestras played music while riding on trucks that drove through the park’s alleys and squares.
Betty Glan regularly invited Soviet celebrities to join in the festivities, which included writer Alexey Tolstoy as well as actors Nikolai Golovanov, Nikolai Okhlopkov and Igor Ilyinskiy.
The park often employed local theatre actors for shows and other entertainment. Just like Disneyland’s Mickey Mouse and his friends, Gorky Park had its own mascots, such as a cow on skates and “satirical duos,” who never failed to get a few laughs out of the visitors – Pat and Patachon or Marusya and Zhorzhik.
Soviet Extreme Sports
Apart from ice skating, skiing and riding on troika horse sleds and merry-go-rounds, Muscovites experimented with other forms of winter fun. For instance, in the 1930s, some brave souls on regular cross-country skis attached ropes to horse saddles, motorbikes or trucks and rode around on the ice and snow. This was truly an extreme form of adventure for that era. Similar exhibitions and competitions were usually held on February 23.
Winter swimming became popular in Moscow during the 1980s. At the time, swimming was allowed in both the Golitsynsky and Andreevsky ponds, as well as the Moscow River (if it wasn’t frozen). Those who liked to condition their body this way dived from watercraft stationed at the Pushkin Embankment and climbed back through the wooden platforms installed specifically for this purpose. People who engage in this practice are called walruses (morzhi) in Russia.