The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged Russia

Stalin in Vladikavkaz

I’m in Vladikavkaz (“Lord of the Caucasus”), North Ossetia, Russian Federation, where Stalin lurks.

I was visiting the fine WWII memorial park “Monument to Glory”.  And there he was, posed casually in front of a giant historical mosaic.

The most surprising part is that the bust is new, added in 2009 by the local Communist Party.  Presumably with the assent of the city government.

According to the Lonely Planet Russian guide, there are at least a couple of other Stalin busts lurking around North Ossetia.  Lonely Planet asserts that there is a local fondness for Stalin due to ethnic politics: in the 1940s, Stalin left the Ossetians in place but deported their hated ethnic enemies, the Ingush, en masse.  Hmm.  It’s possible, but it seems a stretch.

As it happens, the memorial park also has a small, touching memorial to the 2004 Beslan tragedy, when Ingush and Chechen terrorists attacked a North Ossetian school.

Also in Vladikavkaz I spotted an unexpected billboard.  At first I thought it must be an advert for the Russian equivalent of the History Channel, or suchlike.  But no, it’s quite serious.  It’s from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the message is “He was a communist!  Come join us!”  Interesting!  No hint of ambiguity or historical reticence there.

Novorossiysk: Brezhnev

I’ve bagged Lenins by the dozen.  And even a couple of Stalins.

But a Brezhnev?  In the wild?  Now there’s a real rarity.  But there he was, striding casually down the street in downtown Novorossiysk.  So I nabbed him.

This isn’t the doddering, geriatric Brezhnev of the 1980s.  This is the rising apparatchik, posed with a hint of rebellious informality, a loosened tie and a jacket casually slung over one shoulder.  Not the wooden politburo veteran, but the younger man-of-the-people getting ready to grab power.  The Brezhnev who recklessly sped in (and sometimes crashed in) high-end foreign cars.

The most amazing thing about the statue is that it was erected in 2004, long after the fall of the USSR, paid for by local public contributions.

Why does Novorossiysk love Leonid Brezhnev so?  Well, Brezhnev liked to emphasize his heroic war record, centered on the Northern Caucasus, including Novorossiysk.  As Brezhnev rose in power, so did his remembered heroism and so did the remembered importance of (among others) the heroic battle of Novorossiysk.  And so in 1973 Novorossiysk was awarded the prestigious Soviet title of “Hero City”, one of only a dozen such.  And the citizens are no doubt grateful for this favor.

Russian Warship, Sevastopol

Russian Warship, Sevastopol

Russian Warship, Sevastopol

Russian Warship, Sevastopol








I’m in Sevastopol, Ukraine.

The city was formerly host to the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. After 1991, the fleet was partitioned between Ukraine and Russia and both halves are still based at Sevastopol, although most of the warships I spotted had Russian ensigns.

Like Vladivostok, Sevastopol was a closed city during the Soviet era, so it feels strange to be able to wander freely and admire the once guarded fleet.

The city also hosts an eclectic mix of memorials from the Crimean War, WWII and Soviet periods.

Crimean War Cannon, Malakhov Mound.

WWII Artillery, Malakhov Mound.

Baikonur: Soyuz TMA-20 Launch

I was at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to watch the Soyuz TMA-20 launch.  It was spectacular.  I strongly recommend it.  (Tour Logistics.)  (More Baikonur photos.)

I found myself in a tour group of six: our guide told us we were all the tourists visiting the launch. There were also some press, and various Roscosmos/ESA/NASA guests, but it looked like there were still well under 200 observers in total. So it was a much more intimate event than a shuttle launch at Kennedy.

Before the launch we got to see lots of cool toys from the Soviet space program, including a lot of the machinery for the Energia/Buran shuttle. This included sitting in the pilot seats of a full-scale Buran mock-up, clambering over a giant Buran transporter vehicle and then waking around a launch pad. The transporter and launch pad felt like relics from some alien civilization: enormous, exotic, and standing mysteriously abandoned.

Our hosts still suffered from a little Cold War competitive spirit: we were vigorously assured that the N1 rocket was the most powerful launcher ever, and that Buran was much larger/better than the shuttle. (This is not quite how Western sources see it!)

They let our little group into the Soyuz assembly building, so we got to see some Soyuz boosters and then a complete Soyuz launch vehicle up close. A lady guard wagged an indulgent finger when I dared to reach over and touch an engine.
The TMA-20 launch itself was striking. On the pad, the Soyuz sits slightly below ground level, with about half of the first stage boosters below ground. So we couldn’t directly see the initial ignition, just a sudden out-pour of smoke and spreading fire across to one side, which for a fraction of a second made me fear an accident, but no, the craft started to rise and then abruptly there was an intensely bright flame, presumably as we could now see the engines directly for the first time, a dazzling bright fireball, rising very quickly into the sky. Then a few second later a very loud rumbling sound arrived. After we first saw the engines, I never saw the craft itself – the engines were far, far too bright.
It was spectacular. Much more striking than the STS-129 shuttle launch I saw, probably both because we were so much closer (0.9 miles versus 6 miles) and because this was a night launch.
They let us visit close to the launch pad (which was the original Gagarin pad!) about an hour after the launch. So we could see the re-assembled launch gantries and the launch pad itself up close. But they wouldn’t let us into the flame pit, so we couldn’t actually feel the residual launch heat. Drat.

If you are a space buff, I highly recommend this tour.  I’ve posted a page on Baikonur Logistics to provide more information on entry formalities, flights, tour companies, etc.

I took the Metro out to the VDNKh stop. As you emerge, you see the stunning soaring tower of the Monument to the Conquerors of Space. 100 meters of titanium clad concrete, thrusting a rocket ship into the cosmos. Build back in 1964, as a tribute to the bold new Soviet Cosmonauts and the Brave New Soviet Future, it seems like a strange relic of an almost forgotten past, but it is also truly striking: sometimes Soviet art could make the leap to inspirational.

The base of the Monument has a much more mundane example of Soviet art: a dull triumphal parade of heroic workers, with Lenin pointing the way.


Nearby are busts of the early Cosmonauts and a full statue (in almost Lenin-like splendor) of Sergei Korolev, the legendary Chief Designer of the Soviet rocket program.


Underground, below the Monument, is the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.  This has a large and impressive collection of spacecraft and cosmonaut paraphernalia.  There are many models and replicas, but also some startling original pieces.

In the entry hall is a replica of Gagarin’s Vostok-1 capsule.  (The original capsule is at the RSC Energia Museum outside of Moscow.)   The capsule was more spacious than I expected – it seemed significantly bigger than John Glenn’s in the Smithsonian.

Nearby, the stuffed doggies are Belka and Strelka, the first Space Dogs to return safely from orbit, posing beside their little capsule.

Several of the Soyuz capsules were clearly authentic, with real re-entry burns.  I particularly liked the dramatic layout of “Cosmonauts in the Snow” with the cosmonauts awaiting their recovery helicopter.  The accompanying Soyuz craft boasts some extremely authentic looking re-entry scars.

And there is a wide assortment of later artifacts, including Michael Collins’ Apollo suit and a replica MIR space station.

Overall, definitely a Five Star museum.  *****

Moscow’s Central Museum of the Armed Forces doesn’t specify a country in its title, but the answer becomes clear when you step inside. This is the Armed Forces of the USSR, comrade!

Allowing for the Soviet focus, it is an excellent museum of its kind, well laid out, with many shiny artifacts. Outside are arrays of planes, tanks and missiles.

The center piece is a hall celebrating the Soviet WWII Victory.  Two standard Soviet victory images are the raising of the Red Banner over the Reichstag and the throwing of Nazi banners into the dust in Red Square.  Provincial museums must make do with photographs or paintings, but this is Moscow and the Holy Relics themselves are on display!

A perspex case houses the Banner of Victory from the Reichstag. While I was watching, several groups of school age children in military uniforms were herded in to pay their somewhat puzzled respects.

A special floor-level display case houses a sample of the captured Nazi banners from the 1945 Victory Parade, arranged in artful disarray, just as if they were freshly thrown into the dust.

The Museum has many other halls. In one, I found the remains of Gary Power’s U2, as recovered after being shot down over the USSR in 1960. Of course the room tells the history from the Soviet perspective, focusing on the Soviet pilots who brought down the plane.

Soviet Museums tend to ignore the Western front in WWII (just as Western museums tend to underplay the Eastern front) so I was pleased to find a display on the D-Day Landings. There is also a propaganda painting showing happy celebrations as US and Soviet troops link up in Germany. Even more unusually there is a small display commemorating the US material aid to the Soviets, with a photo celebrating the 5000th US plane (!) being delivered from Alaska to Siberia.

Lenin and the Red Army

Practicalities: Open Wed-Sun 10 to 5. GPS 55.784956,37.616669. Take the metro to Dostoevskaya then go about 100m North on Ul Sovetskaya Armee and look for the ICBM.