BEHIND majestic columns adorned with hammers and sickles, Moscow’s Gorky Park once stood as a testament to Russia’s post-Soviet decay: dirty and forgotten, tinny techno pumping from its loudspeakers as children rode rusty rides that had seen better, and safer, days.
As Moscow grew richer following the oil boom of the 2000s, the park fell further into disrepair. While the capital became home to the more billionaires than anywhere else in the world average residents had to navigate piles of rubbish and drunks during an afternoon at what was once Soviet Moscow’s pride and glory.
Last year, something changed. Seemingly overnight, the park was transformed into a rare spot of verdant tranquillity in the midst of Moscow’s overcrowded, traffic-clogged streets.
There are neat rows of ping-pong tables and a petanque court permanently occupied by the city’s hipsters. Each summer night, an open air cinema blasts out hits new and old. There are lounge chairs, free Wi-Fi, even a lawn filled with pillow-shaped beanbags for a mid-afternoon nap.
The park’s renovation is part of a citywide attempt to make Moscow more liveable.
“Many people make money in Moscow, and many people spend money here, but there are very few people who smile at one another,” said Sergey Kapkov, who was promoted to head the city’s culture department after overseeing the renovation of Gorky Park.
Overseeing the renovation of parks across the city has been his most visible achievement, an initiative launched by Sergei Sobyanin, who was appointed mayor in 2010. That the project coincided with an eruption in popular protest and social activity unseen since the Soviet collapse is no coincidence.
“Everyone knows that I went to the protest at Bolotnaya Square,” Kapkov said, referring to one of the big protests against Vladimir Putin’s return to power that rocked the city earlier this year.
“All Muscovites have demands — people call them the ‘creative class’, oppositionists; I call them ‘new city professionals’. These people work in various places, have a stable wage, have travelled a lot and they understand what they want from the city. We’re trying to fulfil their demands.”
In a bid to recognise Muscovites’ newfound political and social activism, city authorities said they would open ‘speakers’ corners’ in Gorky Park.
“There were good parks in the Soviet Union,” Kapkov said. “Parks were called ‘culture factories’. They were the main places in Soviet times because they were accessible and free.”
Then came the Soviet collapse when everything went from being free and cherished to being costly and shabby. Gorky Park, once the jewel in the Soviet parks crown, even instituted an entry fee.
Marianna Remizova, 75, was taking a stroll through the park on a recent afternoon with her husband. They stopped going to the park five years ago and only recently rediscovered it post-renovation.
“Right after the Soviet collapse it was bedlam,” Remizova said. “Now everything is great.” Not everyone is happy. Some decry the lack of games and rides, saying the park has lost sight of its general audience to appeal to the minority of modernised hipsters instead.
Kapkov explains the park’s appeal this way: “Fashionable and hip young people are always the quickest on the uptake. When something new pops up, they always fill it. You can call them hipsters, or fans of Gorky Park. In 20 years, we want people to say: ‘my parents met at Gorky Park’.” — The Guardian, London