The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged USSR

Brest Fortress, Belarus

The Brest Fortress complex commemorates the heroic defence of the Soviet garrison against the German invasion of June 1941.

I entered the Hero Fortress at its new ceremonial entrance: a giant concrete slab with a Soviet star cut into it. Stirring martial music plays as you enter. The gateway was rather grayer and drabber than I expected, but still very impressive. It looks better seen from inside the fortress than from outside.
[Brest Fortress Entrance]

[Brest Honour Guard]

I arrived just in time to see a set of local teenagers do a “changing of the guard” ritual at the eternal flame, complete with high-stepping precision marching. In a small concession to the intense cold, they had their ear flaps folded down.
The fortress complex includes various large Soviet-era memorials. There is a fine concrete sculpture “thirst” of a soldier reaching his helmet out to gather water.


The main monuments are a giant obelisk (100 m) in the form of a Soviet bayonet and an enormous concrete head of a scowling Soviet soldier. Unfortunately while the head is large, it is poorly formed and unsympathetic.

I also ambled through the Fortress Museum, which has some displays of the 19th c. fortress, and even a very short display on the 1939 Polish defence, but which is naturally focused on the 1941 defence, with many photos of the defenders.

Commentary: In 1941 the Soviet Union desperately needed some heroic myths, and the “Defence of the Brest Fortress” fit the bill.  A small group of heroic defenders, stemming the flow of the German invasion.  It’s a good story and I don’t doubt the defenders were truly heroic.  However the German advance seems to have been focused on deep penetration and encirclement, which implies bypassing fortresses and fixed defence points and leaving those to be mopped up later by secondary forces. So the leisurely siege is unlikely to have impacted the main invasion.

The following day: At the Brest station, I met three unhappy travelers, two Americans and a Dane.  They had been taking the train from St Petersburg to Warsaw and hadn’t realized that their train took a non-obvious detour through Belarus.   There are no immigration checks at the Russian-Belarus border, so they had been able to enter Belarus, but then when they were exiting at Brest they were caught by Belarus immigration.  Traveling in Belarus without a visa: not a good situation!  They were removed from the train and delayed for two days in Brest.  They were finally allowed to exit after signing “a big stack of forms” and paying moderate fines (about $200 for the American couple) for having entered Belarus illegally.

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.

Moscow’s Tretyakov Sculpture Garden (aka the Art Muzeon Sculpture Park) hosts a wide variety of modern sculptures, including a number of abandoned Soviet statues.  These statues appear to be consciously presented as debris from a past life – this doesn’t seem like an attempt to glorify the Soviet past, but merely to record it.  It is at GPS 55.7361,37.6090 outside the New Tretyakov gallery, just South of the giant Peter the Great statue. It’s well worth a visit if you care about Moscow’s Soviet past.

 Felix Dzerzhinsky StatueA striking and dramatic statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka (later the NKVD, then the KGB) on a high plinth with the KGB emblem at the front. This is the very statue that used to stand in front of the KGB headquarters in Lubyanka Square and which was dramatically toppled in August 1991.
A rare Brezhnev bust, looking characteristically blank.

A sad and defaced Stalin statue.

Stalin and Lenin busts, guarding giant Soviet insignia.


New Tretyakov Gallery

The New Tretyakov hosts many Soviet era paintings. A couple that caught my eye were:

“”Defence of Petrograd””, A. Deineka (1927).

The workers’ militia marches to the front. The injured return.

“A People’s Court”, S. B. Nikritin (1934).

A grim view of Soviet Power, showing a strange mixture of threat and fear. A very brave painting for 1934.

When I was a lad, Vladivostok was impossibly exotic, remote and inaccessible.  It was a closed city, the home of the jealously guarded Soviet Pacific Fleet, inaccessible to regular Soviet citizens, let alone wicked foreigners.

Well, nowadays a standard Russian tourist visa will let you enter Vladivostok and you can wander at will around the city.  I had vaguely expected that the naval base would still be hidden away, discreetly veiled from touristic eyes.  But no!  Back in the day, there was no need to hide it, since the whole city was a closed area.   So today the remaining ships of the Russian Pacific Fleet sit quietly in the main harbor, visible to all.

I took the funicular up to Eagle’s Nest Hill, for a fine (albeit hazy) view of the Golden Horn harbor and various Russian warships.  I nervously took a few snaps.  Some part of me was still vaguely expecting the heavy hand of Soviet Power to drop on my shoulder.  Far from it: a random tourist taking snapshots in today’s Russia is not a big deal.  (And in the age of high resolution satellites, random tourist snaps are probably neither here nor there.)

For dessert, I wandered over to the the charming Vladivostok Fortress Museum.  As well as the fortress exhibits, this has many fine Soviet military toys outside and you are encouraged to clamber over the guns and even elevate or rotate the small ones.

Side note:  When I was in Karaganda (Kazakhstan) I had been puzzled to find a significant number of ethnic Koreans there, supposedly resettled there by Stalin.  Well, when the Tsars founded Vladivostok (“Lord of the East”) as their great Pacific base,  it was in an area settled by ethnic Koreans.  Much later, like other ethnic groups straddling the USSR’s frontiers, they were deemed a security risk by Stalin and exiled to the Kazakh steppes.